Theranostics 2022; 12(2):474-492. doi:10.7150/thno.63744 This issue

Research Paper

A transcriptional biosensor to monitor single cancer cell therapeutic responses by bioluminescence microscopy

Audrey Champagne1,2*, Pallavi Jain1,2*, Lauriane Vélot1,2, Julie Riopel3, Véronique Lefebvre3, Bertrand Neveu1,2, Frédéric Pouliot1,2✉

1. Centre de recherche du CHU de Québec-Université Laval, Québec, Canada
2. Department of Surgery (Urology), Faculty of Medicine, Laval University, Québec, Canada
3. Department of Laboratory Medicine (Clinical Anatomopathology), CHU de Québec-Université Laval, Québec, Canada
* These authors contributed equally to this work.

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Champagne A, Jain P, Vélot L, Riopel J, Lefebvre V, Neveu B, Pouliot F. A transcriptional biosensor to monitor single cancer cell therapeutic responses by bioluminescence microscopy. Theranostics 2022; 12(2):474-492. doi:10.7150/thno.63744. Available from

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Graphic abstract

When several life-prolonging drugs are indicated for cancer treatment, predictive drug-response tumor biomarkers are essential to guide management. Most conventional biomarkers are based on bulk tissue analysis, which cannot address the complexity of single-cell heterogeneity responsible for drug resistance. Therefore, there is a need to develop alternative drug response predictive biomarker approaches that could directly interrogate single-cell and whole population cancer cell drug sensitivity. In this study, we report a novel method exploiting bioluminescence microscopy to detect single prostate cancer (PCa) cell response to androgen receptor (AR)-axis-targeted therapies (ARAT) and predict cell population sensitivity.

Methods: We have generated a new adenovirus-delivered biosensor, PCA3-Cre-PSEBC-ITSTA, which combines an integrated two-step transcriptional amplification system (ITSTA) and the activities of the prostate cancer antigen 3 (PCA3) and modified prostate-specific antigen (PSEBC) gene promoters as a single output driving the firefly luciferase reporter gene. This system was tested on PCa cell lines and on primary PCa cells. Single cells, exposed or not to ARAT, were dynamically imaged by bioluminescence microscopy. A linear discriminant analysis (LDA)-based method was used to determine cell population sensitivities to ARAT.

Results: We show that the PCA3-Cre-PSEBC-ITSTA biosensor is PCa-specific and can dynamically monitor single-cell AR transcriptional activity before and after ARAT by bioluminescence microscopy. After biosensor transduction and bioluminescence microscopy single-cell luminescence dynamic quantification, LDA analysis could discriminate the cell populations overall ARAT sensitivity despite heterogeneous single-cell responses. Indeed, the biosensor could detect a significant decrease in AR activity following exposure to conventional ARAT in hormone-naive primary PCa cells, while in castration-resistant PCa patients, treatment response correlated with the observed clinical ARAT resistance.

Conclusion: The exploitation of bioluminescence microscopy and multi-promoter transcriptionally-regulated biosensors can aptly define the overall treatment response of patients by monitoring live single cell drug response from primary cancer tissue. This approach can be used to develop predictive biomarkers for drug response in order to help clinicians select the best drug combinations or sequences for each patient.

Keywords: prostate cancer, biosensor, bioluminescence microscopy, single-cell dynamic imaging, androgen receptor-axis-targeted therapy resistance.