Spatial profiling reveals tissue-specific neuro-immune interactions in gastroenteropancreatic neuroendocrine tumors

Suzann Duan, Travis W. Sawyer, Brandon L. Witten, Heyu Song, Tobias Else, Juanita L. Merchant

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Gastroenteropancreatic neuroendocrine tumors (GEP-NETs) are heterogeneous malignancies that arise from complex cellular interactions within the tissue microenvironment. Here, we sought to decipher tumor-derived signals from the surrounding microenvironment by applying digital spatial profiling (DSP) to hormone-secreting and non-functional GEP-NETs. By combining this approach with in vitro studies of human-derived organoids, we demonstrated the convergence of cell autonomous immune and pro-inflammatory proteins that suggests their role in neuroendocrine differentiation and tumorigenesis. DSP was used to evaluate the expression of 40 neural- and immune-related proteins in surgically resected duodenal and pancreatic NETs (n = 20) primarily consisting of gastrinomas (18/20). A total of 279 regions of interest were examined between tumors, adjacent normal and abnormal-appearing epithelium, and the surrounding stroma. The results were stratified by tissue type and multiple endocrine neoplasia I (MEN1) status, whereas protein expression was validated by immunohistochemistry (IHC). A tumor immune cell autonomous inflammatory signature was further evaluated by IHC and RNAscope, while functional pro-inflammatory signaling was confirmed using patient-derived duodenal organoids. Gastrin-secreting and non-functional pancreatic NETs showed a higher abundance of immune cell markers and immune infiltrate compared with duodenal gastrinomas. Compared with non-MEN1 tumors, MEN1 gastrinomas and preneoplastic lesions showed strong immune exclusion and upregulated expression of neuropathological proteins. Despite a paucity of immune cells, duodenal gastrinomas expressed the pro-inflammatory and pro-neural factor IL-17B. Treatment of human duodenal organoids with IL-17B activated NF-κB and STAT3 signaling and induced the expression of neuroendocrine markers. In conclusion, multiplexed spatial protein analysis identified tissue-specific neuro-immune signatures in GEP-NETs. Duodenal gastrinomas are characterized by an immunologically cold microenvironment that permits cellular reprogramming and neoplastic transformation of the preneoplastic epithelium. Moreover, duodenal gastrinomas cell autonomously express immune and pro-inflammatory factors, including tumor-derived IL-17B, that stimulate the neuroendocrine phenotype.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)362-376
Number of pages15
JournalJournal of Pathology
Issue number3
StatePublished - Mar 2024


  • GEP-NENs
  • GEP-NETs
  • MEN1 syndrome
  • NanoString
  • digital spatial profiling
  • duodenal gastrinoma
  • gastrinoma

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Pathology and Forensic Medicine


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