Different Places, Different Shapes
Tissue microenvironments affect the functional states of cancer cells, but determining these influences in vivo has remained a challenge. In recent work published in Journal of Cell biology, Segal et al. present a quantitative high-resolution imaging assay of single cancer cells in zebrafish xenografts to probe functional adaptation to variable cell-extrinsic cues and molecular interventions. Using cell morphology as a surrogate readout of cell functional states, they examine environmental influences on the morphotype distribution of Ewing Sarcoma, a pediatric cancer associated with the oncogene EWSR1-FLI1 and whose plasticity is thought to determine disease outcome through non-genomic mechanisms. Computer vision analysis reveals systematic shifts in the distribution of 3D morphotypes as a function of cell type and seeding site, as well as tissue-specific cellular organizations that recapitulate those observed in human tumors. Reduced expression of the EWSR1-FLI1 protein product causes a shift to more protrusive cells and decreased tissue specificity of the morphotype distribution. Overall, this work establishes a framework for a statistically robust study of cancer cell plasticity in diverse tissue microenvironments. This work is the product of a fruitful collaboration between experimentalists, computational scientists, and microscopy experts in the Danuser and Fiolka labs.