Visualizing stromal cell dynamics in different tumor microenvironments by spinning disk confocal microscopy

The tumor microenvironment consists of stromal cells and extracellular factors that evolve in parallel with carcinoma cells. To gain insights into the activities of stromal cell populations, we developed and applied multicolor imaging techniques to analyze the behavior of these cells within different tumor microenvironments in the same live mouse. We found that regulatory T-lymphocytes (Tregs) migrated in proximity to blood vessels. Dendritic-like cells, myeloid cells and carcinoma-associated fibroblasts all exhibited higher motility in the microenvironment at the tumor periphery than within the tumor mass. Since oxygen levels differ between tumor microenvironments, we tested if acute hypoxia could account for the differences in cell migration. Direct visualization revealed that Tregs ceased migration under acute systemic hypoxia, whereas myeloid cells continued migrating. In the same mouse and microenvironment, we experimentally subdivided the myeloid cell population and revealed that uptake of fluorescent dextran defined a low-motility subpopulation expressing markers of tumor-promoting, alternatively activated macrophages. In contrast, fluorescent anti-Gr1 antibodies marked myeloid cells patrolling inside tumor vessels and in the stroma. Our techniques allow real-time combinatorial analysis of cell populations based on spatial location, gene expression, behavior and cell surface molecules within intact tumors. The techniques are not limited to investigations in cancer, but could give new insights into cell behavior more broadly in development and disease.