“Zooming in” on Glioblastoma: Understanding Tumor Heterogeneity and its Clinical Implications in the Era of Single-Cell Ribonucleic Acid Sequencing

Neurosurgery 88:477–486, 2021

Glioblastoma (GBM) is the most common primary brain malignancy in adults and one of the most aggressive of all human cancers. It is highly recurrent and treatment-resistant, in large part due to its infiltrative nature and inter- and intratumoral heterogeneity. This heterogeneity entails varying genomic landscapes and cell types within and between tumors and the tumor microenvironment (TME). In GBM, heterogeneity is a driver of treatment resistance, recurrence, and poor prognosis, representing a substantial impediment to personalized medicine.

Over the last decade, sequencing technologies have facilitated deeper understanding of GBM heterogeneity by “zooming in” progressively further on tumor genomics and transcriptomics. Initial efforts employed bulk ribonucleic acid (RNA) sequencing, which examines composite gene expression of whole tumor specimens. While groundbreaking at the time, this bulk RNAseq masks the crucial contributions of distinct tumor subpopulations to overall gene expression. This work progressed to the use of bulk RNA sequencing in anatomically and spatially distinct tumor subsections, which demonstrated previously underappreciated genomic complexity of GBM.

A revolutionary next step forward has been the advent of single-cell RNA sequencing (scRNAseq), which examines gene expression at the single-cell level. scRNAseq has enabled us to understand GBM heterogeneity in unprecedented detail.

We review seminal studies in our progression of understanding GBM heterogeneity, with a focus on scRNAseq and the insights that it has provided into understanding the GBM tumor mass, peritumoral space, and TME. We highlight preclinical and clinical implications of this work and consider its potential to impact neuro-oncology and to improve patient outcomes via personalized medicine.