Molecular profiling of human non-small cell lung cancer by single-cell RNA-seq

Genome Med. 2022 Aug 13;14(1):87. doi: 10.1186/s13073-022-01089-9.


Background: Lung cancer, one of the most common malignant tumors, exhibits high inter- and intra-tumor heterogeneity which contributes significantly to treatment resistance and failure. Single-cell RNA sequencing (scRNA-seq) has been widely used to dissect the cellular composition and characterize the molecular properties of cancer cells and their tumor microenvironment in lung cancer. However, the transcriptomic heterogeneity among various cancer cells in non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) warrants further illustration.

Methods: To comprehensively analyze the molecular heterogeneity of NSCLC, we performed high-precision single-cell RNA-seq analyses on 7364 individual cells from tumor tissues and matched normal tissues from 19 primary lung cancer patients and 1 pulmonary chondroid hamartoma patient.

Results: In 6 of 16 patients sequenced, we identified a significant proportion of cancer cells simultaneously expressing classical marker genes for two or even three histologic subtypes of NSCLC-adenocarcinoma (ADC), squamous cell carcinoma (SCC), and neuroendocrine tumor (NET) in the same individual cell, which we defined as mixed-lineage tumor cells; this was verified by both co-immunostaining and RNA in situ hybridization. These data suggest that mixed-lineage tumor cells are highly plastic with mixed features of different types of NSCLC. Both copy number variation (CNV) patterns and mitochondrial mutations clearly showed that the mixed-lineage and single-lineage tumor cells from the same patient had common tumor ancestors rather than different origins. Moreover, we revealed that patients with high mixed-lineage features of different cancer subtypes had worse survival than patients with low mixed-lineage features, indicating that mixed-lineage tumor features were associated with poorer prognosis. In addition, gene signatures specific to mixed-lineage tumor cells were identified, including AKR1B1. Gene knockdown and small molecule inhibition of AKR1B1 can significantly decrease cell proliferation and promote cell apoptosis, suggesting that AKR1B1 plays an important role in tumorigenesis and can serve as a candidate target for tumor therapy of NSCLC patients with mixed-lineage tumor features.

Conclusions: In summary, our work provides novel insights into the tumor heterogeneity of NSCLC in terms of the identification of prevalent mixed-lineage subpopulations of cancer cells with combined signatures of SCC, ADC, and NET and offers clues for potential treatment strategies in these patients.

Keywords: Mixed-lineage cancer cells; Non-small cell lung cancer; Single-cell RNA sequencing; Tumor heterogeneity.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adenocarcinoma* / genetics
  • Aldehyde Reductase / genetics
  • Aldehyde Reductase / metabolism
  • Biomarkers, Tumor / genetics
  • Biomarkers, Tumor / metabolism
  • Carcinoma, Non-Small-Cell Lung* / pathology
  • Carcinoma, Squamous Cell* / genetics
  • DNA Copy Number Variations
  • Gene Expression Regulation, Neoplastic
  • Humans
  • Lung Neoplasms* / pathology
  • Prognosis
  • RNA-Seq
  • Tumor Microenvironment


  • Biomarkers, Tumor
  • AKR1B1 protein, human
  • Aldehyde Reductase