Cancer therapy often results in heterogeneous responses in different metastatic lesions in the same patient. Inter- and intratumor heterogeneity in signaling within various tumor compartments and its impact on therapy are not well characterized due to the limited sensitivity of single-cell proteomic approaches. To overcome this barrier, we applied single-cell mass cytometry with a customized 26-antibody panel to PTEN-deleted orthotopic prostate cancer xenograft models to measure the evolution of kinase activities in different tumor compartments during metastasis or drug treatment. Compared with primary tumors and circulating tumor cells (CTC), bone metastases, but not lung and liver metastases, exhibited elevated PI3K/mTOR signaling and overexpressed receptor tyrosine kinases (RTK) including c-MET protein. Suppression of c-MET impaired tumor growth in the bone. Intratumoral heterogeneity within tumor compartments also arose from highly proliferative EpCAM-high epithelial cells with increased PI3K and mTOR kinase activities coexisting with poorly proliferating EpCAM-low mesenchymal populations with reduced kinase activities; these findings were recapitulated in epithelial and mesenchymal CTC populations in patients with metastatic prostate and breast cancer. Increased kinase activity in EpCAM-high cells rendered them more sensitive to PI3K/mTOR inhibition, and drug-resistant EpCAM-low populations with reduced kinase activity emerged over time. Taken together, single-cell proteomics indicate that microenvironment- and cell state–dependent activation of kinase networks create heterogeneity and differential drug sensitivity among and within tumor populations across different sites, defining a new paradigm of drug responses to kinase inhibitors.


Single-cell mass cytometry analyses provide insights into the differences in kinase activities across tumor compartments and cell states, which contribute to heterogeneous responses to targeted therapies.

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