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Single-cell transcriptomics reveals regulators underlying immune cell diversity and immune subtypes associated with prognosis in nasopharyngeal carcinoma

Nasopharyngeal carcinoma (NPC) is an aggressive malignancy with extremely skewed ethnic and geographic distributions. Increasing evidence indicates that targeting the tumor microenvironment (TME) represents a promising therapeutic approach in NPC, highlighting an urgent need to deepen the understanding of the complex NPC TME. Here, we generated single-cell transcriptome profiles for 7581 malignant cells and 40,285 immune cells from fifteen primary NPC tumors and one normal sample. We revealed malignant signatures capturing intratumoral transcriptional heterogeneity and predicting aggressiveness of malignant cells. Diverse immune cell subtypes were identified, including novel subtypes such as CLEC9A+ dendritic cells (DCs). We further revealed transcriptional regulators underlying immune cell diversity, and cell–cell interaction analyses highlighted promising immunotherapeutic targets in NPC. Moreover, we established the immune subtype-specific signatures, and demonstrated that the signatures of macrophages, plasmacytoid dendritic cells (pDCs), CLEC9A+ DCs, natural killer (NK) cells, and plasma cells were significantly associated with improved survival outcomes in NPC. Taken together, our findings represent a unique resource providing in-depth insights into the cellular heterogeneity of NPC TME and highlight potential biomarkers for anticancer treatment and risk stratification, laying a new foundation for precision therapies in NPC.