Cancer patients presenting with surgically resectable disease often harbor occult metastases, a potential source of relapse that is targetable only through systemic therapy. Studies of this occult fraction have been limited by a lack of tools with which to isolate discrete cells based on spatial grounds. We developed PIC-IT, photoconversion-based isolation technique allowing efficient recovery of cell clusters of any size including solitary disseminated tumor cells (DTCs), which are largely inaccessible otherwise. In a murine pancreatic cancer model, transcriptional profiling of spontaneously arising DTCs revealed phenotypic heterogeneity, functionally reduced propensity to proliferate and enrichment for inflammatory-response phenotype associated with NF-κB /AP-1 signaling. Pharmacological inhibition of NF-κB depleted DTCs but had no effect on macrometastases, suggesting DTCs are particularly dependent on this pathway. PIC-IT enables systematic investigation of the earliest stages of metastatic colonization. Moreover, this new technique can be applied to other biological systems in which isolation and characterization of spatially distinct cell populations is not currently feasible. ### Competing Interest Statement The authors have declared no competing interest.
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