Molecular markers based on gene expression profiles have been used in experimental and clinical settings to distinguish cancerous tumors in stage, grade, survival time, metastasis, and drug sensitivity. However, most significant gene markers are unstable (not reproducible) among data sets. We introduce a standardized method for representing cancer markers as 2-level hierarchical feature vectors, with a basic gene level as well as a second level of (more stable) pathway markers, for the purpose of discriminating cancer subtypes. This extends standard gene expression arrays with new pathway-level activation features obtained directly from off-the-shelf gene set enrichment algorithms such as GSEA. Such so-called pathway-based expression arrays are significantly more reproducible across datasets. Such reproducibility will be important for clinical usefulness of genomic markers, and augment currently accepted cancer classification protocols.
The present method produced more stable (reproducible) pathway-based markers for discriminating breast cancer metastasis and ovarian cancer survival time. Between two datasets for breast cancer metastasis, the intersection of standard significant gene biomarkers totaled 7.47% of selected genes, compared to 17.65% using pathway-based markers; the corresponding percentages for ovarian cancer datasets were 20.65% and 33.33% respectively. Three pathways, consisting of Type_1_diabetes mellitus, Cytokine-cytokine_receptor_interaction and Hedgehog_signaling (all previously implicated in cancer), are enriched in both the ovarian long survival and breast non-metastasis groups. In addition, integrating pathway and gene information, we identified five (ID4, ANXA4, CXCL9, MYLK, FBXL7) and six (SQLE, E2F1, PTTG1, TSTA3, BUB1B, MAD2L1) known cancer genes significant for ovarian and breast cancer respectively.
Standardizing the analysis of genomic data in the process of cancer staging, classification and analysis is important as it has implications for both pre-clinical as well as clinical studies. The paradigm of diagnosis and prediction using pathway-based biomarkers as features can be an important part of the process of biomarker-based cancer analysis, and the resulting canonical (clinically reproducible) biomarkers can be important in standardizing genomic data. We expect that identification of such canonical biomarkers will improve clinical utility of high-throughput datasets for diagnostic and prognostic applications.
This article was reviewed by John McDonald (nominated by I. King Jordon), Eugene Koonin, Nathan Bowen (nominated by I. King Jordon), and Ekaterina Kotelnikova (nominated by Mikhail Gelfand).