Learning cell identity in immunology, neuroscience, and cancer

Semin Immunopathol. 2023 Jan;45(1):3-16. doi: 10.1007/s00281-022-00976-y. Epub 2022 Dec 19.


Suspension and imaging cytometry techniques that simultaneously measure hundreds of cellular features are powering a new era of cell biology and transforming our understanding of human tissues and tumors. However, a central challenge remains in learning the identities of unexpected or novel cell types. Cell identification rubrics that could assist trainees, whether human or machine, are not always rigorously defined, vary greatly by field, and differentially rely on cell intrinsic measurements, cell extrinsic tissue measurements, or external contextual information such as clinical outcomes. This challenge is especially acute in the context of tumors, where cells aberrantly express developmental programs that are normally time, location, or cell-type restricted. Well-established fields have contrasting practices for cell identity that have emerged from convention and convenience as much as design. For example, early immunology focused on identifying minimal sets of protein features that mark individual, functionally distinct cells. In neuroscience, features including morphology, development, and anatomical location were typical starting points for defining cell types. Both immunology and neuroscience now aim to link standardized measurements of protein or RNA to informative cell functions such as electrophysiology, connectivity, lineage potential, phospho-protein signaling, cell suppression, and tumor cell killing ability. The expansion of automated, machine-driven methods for learning cell identity has further created an urgent need for a harmonized framework for distinguishing cell identity across fields and technology platforms. Here, we compare practices in the fields of immunology and neuroscience, highlight concepts from each that might work well in the other, and propose ways to implement these ideas to study neural and immune cell interactions in brain tumors and associated model systems.

Keywords: Brain tumors; Cell identity; Cytometry; Immunology; Neuroscience; Single cell.

Publication types

  • Review
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Humans
  • Image Cytometry*
  • Image Interpretation, Computer-Assisted
  • Neoplasms* / etiology