Consistent metagenes from cancer expression profiles yield agent specific predictors of chemotherapy response
- Qiyuan Li†1, 2,
- Aron C Eklund†1,
- Nicolai J Birkbak1,
- Christine Desmedt3,
- Benjamin Haibe-Kains4,
- Christos Sotiriou3,
- W Fraser Symmans5,
- Lajos Pusztai6,
- Søren Brunak1,
- Andrea L Richardson7Email author and
- Zoltan Szallasi1, 8Email author
© Li et al; licensee BioMed Central Ltd. 2011
Received: 29 March 2011
Accepted: 28 July 2011
Published: 28 July 2011
Genome scale expression profiling of human tumor samples is likely to yield improved cancer treatment decisions. However, identification of clinically predictive or prognostic classifiers can be challenging when a large number of genes are measured in a small number of tumors.
We describe an unsupervised method to extract robust, consistent metagenes from multiple analogous data sets. We applied this method to expression profiles from five "double negative breast cancer" (DNBC) (not expressing ESR1 or HER2) cohorts and derived four metagenes. We assessed these metagenes in four similar but independent cohorts and found strong associations between three of the metagenes and agent-specific response to neoadjuvant therapy. Furthermore, we applied the method to ovarian and early stage lung cancer, two tumor types that lack reliable predictors of outcome, and found that the metagenes yield predictors of survival for both.
These results suggest that the use of multiple data sets to derive potential biomarkers can filter out data set-specific noise and can increase the efficiency in identifying clinically accurate biomarkers.
Microarray gene expression profiling provides an unbiased, comprehensive view of an entire molecular system, and is well suited to identify the relevant factors that define the cancer phenotype. However, the success of this method can be impeded by problems arising from the parallel measurements of tens of thousands of gene expression levels sampled in a far lower number of tumor specimens, typically a few hundred at most. Two specific problems have impacted cancer research: First, overfitting has produced several seemingly promising diagnostic patterns that have not been verifiable in independent studies [1, 2]. Second, redundant information in the form of strongly correlated genes has led to the repeated "discovery" of diagnostic patterns detecting a single robust phenomenon, such as the cell proliferation pattern that is prognostic in estrogen receptor (ER) positive breast cancer . One approach to these problems is to reduce the dimensionality of the data by combining (usually correlated) genes into a small number of metagenes.
Several gene combinations have been used to characterize the cancer phenotype [4–7]. For example, the linear combination of proliferation associated genes and estrogen regulated genes provides a better predictor of outcome in tamoxifen treated ER-positive breast cancer than does either class of genes alone . Although several supervised methods to find biologically relevant linear gene combinations are available, finding such predictive metagenes in an unsupervised fashion remains a challenge [5, 9]. In breast cancer, expression profiles can easily discriminate between ER-negative and ER-positive tumors, which have very different clinical behavior. For this reason it is also easy, but not clinically useful, to develop trivial predictors of outcome in cohorts of mixed ER subtype. Within the ER-positive subgroup, several predictors of response to chemotherapy have been described [10–12]. However, supervised methods have not yielded highly accurate predictors of chemotherapy response in DNBC [3, 13, 14]. This molecularly and clinically distinct subset of breast cancers represents approximately 20-25% of all breast cancers and can be treated only with chemotherapy. About 25-30% of these cancers respond favorably to treatment, but the remainder has very poor survival despite current best therapies .
Here we describe an unsupervised method to derive metagenes by leveraging the consistent expression patterns found in multiple gene expression data sets of the same cancer subtype. Our approach is based on the postulate that analogous microarray data sets, such as those from patient cohorts selected under similar criteria, are representative collections from a larger population "expression space". In this expression space, individual samples are robustly separated by a set of metagenes, some of which may be clinically relevant. However, each individual data set may be adulterated by sampling artifacts and with data set specific noise. Therefore, our approach is to derive metagenes that are consistently observed in several cohorts and are likely representative of the entire population. By first identifying metagenes in an unsupervised fashion, and then evaluating association between the metagenes and clinical outcome, we reduce the risk of overfitting.
Using this method we derived metagenes from expression profiles of DNBC, stage III ovarian cancer and early stage lung cancer, respectively. Then we verified the association of these metagenes with clinical outcome in independent validation cohorts of the three cancer types.
Derivation of DNBC-specific consistent expression indices (CEIs)
We created a reference data set of DNBC from five previously published breast cancer cohorts that were all profiled on the same microarray platform (HG-U133A) and were without neoadjuvant drug response data [3, 16–21] (Additional file 1). From a total of 1037 tumors we identified a subset of 218 DNBC based on expression levels of ESR1 and ERBB2 [3, 4, 22–24] (Additional file 2).
Next we used factor analysis (FA) to distill the information in the CPC genes into six biologically relevant metagenes (Figure 1d, e). FA can be considered an extension of PCA in which an additional rotation maximizes variance of the gene weights. This additional rotation step results in a more even distribution of variance among components than does PCA alone. In general, FA is often preferred when the goal of the analysis is to understand and explain the structure in the data . Using only the CPC genes in the combined reference data sets, we identified six factors that together explained 57% of the variance in the CPC genes (Additional file 3). In order to estimate the contribution of these factors in other data sets, we defined six consistent expression indices (CEIs) based on the sign of the non-trivial gene weights from each factor; thus each CEI comprises between 23 and 80 of the CPC genes (Additional file 3). At this point the CEIs were finalized, and in all subsequent analysis the CEIs were applied to the data sets without further adjustment. Thus, the CEIs were derived entirely from expression data, without consideration of any functional annotation or clinical outcome.
Association between CEIs and clinical outcome in double-negative breast cancer
DNBC-derived CEIs are associated with tumor response to neoadjuvant chemotherapy in DNBC cohorts
In the two cohorts in which patients received neoadjuvant chemotherapy without taxane, we found CEI1 is significantly associated with residual disease (RD), a typical poor pathological response (AUC = 0.73, P = 0.01 in EORTC, AUC = 0.85, P = 0.02 in JBI2). On the other hand, there is no detectable association between CEI3 and response to either FEC or epirubicin treatment (Table 1, Figure 3c, d). These associations between CEIs and pathological responses in the validation cohorts was stronger than any we observed using published predictors [25, 26] or using predictors we derived using conventional methods (Additional file 4).
To test whether the CEIs were simply capturing known metagenes, we compared the six CEIs with 38 signatures reflecting tumor-associated biological processes or infiltrating cell types . We used a meta-analysis based on seven data sets and found CEI1 was negatively correlated with ER/luminal-basal metagenes and ERBB2-molecular apocrine tumor metagenes; whereas CEI3 was positively correlated with the proliferation/AURKA metagene (Additional file 5). We also observed other correlations: CEI3 negatively correlated with the stroma and adipocyte metagenes. However, none of these metagenes was reported to hold similarly strong and consistent predictive power in the original studies as that of CEI1 and CEI3  (Additional file 4). This may suggest that synergistic effects of multiple biological processes are more deterministic of the response to therapy than any single ones. In addition, CEI5 and CEI6 were not correlated with any of the known metagenes. Therefore, these two CEIs may reflect some biological processes relevant to DNBC but not yet described as such in any previous study.
Comparison with existing methods
In order to compare the performance of the CPC approach to existing algorithms, we assessed several supervised and unsupervised methods for their ability to generate metagenes predictive of treatment response.
For supervised methods, we first selected genes that are significantly associated with pathological response to taxane-based neoadjuvant therapy in the MDA1 data set based on Pearson's correlation coefficients, diagonal linear discrimination analysis [26, 29], student's t-test, Wilcoxon's rank sum test, or nearest shrunken centroids . We validated the predictive power of these metagenes in two other cohorts, MDA2 and EORTC. Metagenes based on Pearson correlation coefficients and nearest shrunken centroids yielded consistently significant predictions in the test data sets whereas the rest of the methods did not (Additional file 4). However, the predictive power represented by the area under the curves (AUCs) of all gene-by-gene methods decrease in the validation cohorts, suggesting overfitting..
For unsupervised methods, we pooled the five DNBC data sets and subjected it to independent component analysis (ICA)  or sparse principal component analysis (SPCA) . Three of the six top ICA components were predictive of pathological response in MDA1 and MDA2 data sets; and three of the six top SPCA components were predictive of pathological response in MDA1 and JBI2 data sets; whereas with the same number of components, consistent expression indices were predictive in four cohorts. More importantly, these methods produced less consistent results in terms of their predictive power in the two cohorts with similar treatment regimen. None of the components derived by ICA and SPCA, predicted the pathological response in the two taxane-based neoadjuvant trials (MDA1 and MDA/MAQC) in a consistent fashion. In particular, the third and fifth independent components (ICA3 and ICA5) predicted outcome the opposite direction, high values predicting favorable response in one and unfavorable response in the other cohort (Additional file 6).
Other cancer types
ER-positive HER2-negative breast cancer
The ER-positive HER2-negative tumor is another major subtype of breast cancer and differs from DNBC in both transcriptional and genomic features . Since some of the DNBC-derived CEIs may capture consistent biological variations common to both subtypes, we examined the association between the DNBC-derived CEIs and clinical outcome in ER-positive HER2-negative subsets of the validation cohorts. In a pooled cohort of 858 ER-positive HER2-negative tumors [9, 21, 33–36], binary classification based on CEI3 was significantly associated with disease-free survival in tamoxifen-treated patients (HR = 3.20, P = 0.016) as well as in patients not given tamoxifen treatment (HR = 1.8, P = 0.0004) (Additional file 7). Compared to DNBC, where CEI3 was associated with only pathological response to TFAC therapy but not long-term clinical outcome, the prognostic power of CEI3 in ER-positive HER2-negative tumors suggests that the same biological process, proliferation, may have different effects in the two different subtypes, which is concordant with previous translational studies performed in ER-positive tumors [3, 37, 38].
Ovarian cancer is represented in only a limited number of microarray data sets and to the best of our knowledge there are no two analogous ovarian cancer data sets for which the same type of clinical outcome data is publicly available. Therefore, this type of cancer offered an opportunity to test our proposition that clinically relevant predictors can be extracted from data sets not associated with (and trained on) clinical outcome data.
Finally, we turned our attention to lung adenocarcinoma, for which at least five microarray data sets are publicly available [39, 44]. In a recent multi-site blinded validation study, at least eight gene expression based survival predictors were tested in two validation data sets, but none of these predicted clinical outcome in stage I cases in more than one data set unless clinical covariates were included . Therefore, we applied the same strategy to early stage lung cancer. In order to test our method within the same analytical framework of the original study we applied a cross-validation approach in the four lung cancer cohorts by extracting CEIs from each combination of three cohorts (using early stage samples only) and testing for association between these lung cancer-derived CEIs and outcome in the remaining cohort (for stage I only). In three of the four rounds of the validation, at least one of the CEIs were significantly predictive of outcome in stage I lung cancer in the validation cohort, without the use of further clinical variables and without any training on outcome (Additional file 8). Furthermore, we derived four CEIs from all four lung cancer data sets (early stage only, Additional file 3) and tested them on a fifth independent lung cancer cohort  and found that CEI1 was predictive of 5-year overall survival in stage I samples (HR = 7.73, P = 0.034, Additional file 8).
To understand the biology underlying the predictive power of these CEIs, we tested for enrichment of Gene Ontology (GO) annotations for biological processes in the CPC genes. For the CPC genes of the DNBC derived CEIs, the most enriched GO categories included immune and inflammatory response. For the lung cancer derived CEIs, the top categories included digestion, response to external stimulus, and oxidation/reduction (Additional file 9). While the GO category analysis did not provide an easy interpretation of the observed predictive power of clinical behavior, a literature analysis identified several genes that were linked to specific chemotherapy response or resistance mechanisms, including GPX3 , HPGD , AKR1C1, and AKR1C2 .
We have presented a method to extract metagenes that consistently distinguish among individual double-negative breast cancers in multiple gene expression data sets. We found a strong association between three of the six CEIs and the efficacy of various neoadjuvant treatments in DNBC. This association was stronger than that of previously published predictors and suggests that these gene sets reflect important biological processes that influence sensitivity to chemotherapy. Importantly, different CEIs were predictive of different regimens. Furthermore, some CEIs were predictive only in DNBC and not in ER-positive tumors.
An attractive feature of the method presented here is that it is unsupervised; i.e. the CEIs are derived without information about clinical response or outcome. This holds particular importance for cancer types with only a few existing clinical outcome matched microarray based cohorts . In the case of cancer types of higher incidence and easier access to clinical material (e.g. breast, lung), multiple analogous cohorts complete with clinical outcome data, often up to six or seven independent data sets, are available for supervised analysis to identify individually informative genes. These genes could then be combined into multi-gene prediction models and independently validated on the various cohorts. In the case of other cancer types (pancreas, prostate, etc.), lower incidence, difficulties with obtaining appropriate RNA material, or the specific clinical course of the disease results in a lack of clinical outcome matched microarray data sets. In such cases a method that is able to extract potential outcome predictors without training on outcome data may provide a potential solution. Given the observation that CEIs may already hold predictive value without being fitted to the actual clinical outcome, CPC-based methods may extract testable predictors from microarray data without matched clinical outcome, and the few outcome matched microarray cohorts could then be used for independent validation. For example, prostate cancer is represented by at least fourteen microarray cohorts, but only three of these have clinical outcome published as well [49–52].
Although biological functions of the CEIs can be partially understood by methods such as GO analysis, our knowledge about these genes still remains very limited. There might be several reasons for this. First, many of the genes listed in the CEIs have not been investigated in detail for direct involvement in drug resistance mechanisms. Second, drug resistance might be the result of a distinct but complex biological feature which involves a concert of relevant biological mechanisms, such as increased expression of multidrug resistance genes, low proliferation rate, and the combination of these mechanisms might be best quantified by common upstream and downstream markers that reflect the expression level the relevant biological mechanisms. In general, it is desirable for clinical predictors to be associated with uniquely identifiable biological mechanisms so as for therapeutic targetability. However, we emphasize that our approach was designed to overcome the failure of single gene, single biological mechanism prediction of clinical outcome . We aimed at determining and testing the utility of the most robust and consistent information in high throughput data sets, which is more likely to capture the most comprehensive and dominant biological variations in human tumors rather than any single unique biological process from limited prior knowledge.
The predictors presented in this paper would need to be refined before introduction into clinical practice. Currently each CEI comprises up to 235 genes, a number that might be impractical for a clinical test such as multiple quantitative PCR. Also, treatment decisions are dichotomous; a patient either receives a particular treatment or does not. Therefore, the most useful clinical tests have decision thresholds, which will need to be determined for the CEIs and will need to be validated in independent cohorts to establish the sensitivity and specificity of a future treatment response test.
The approach we described in this analysis is well-suited to identify linear gene combinations that express consistent variations in a set of independent but biologically similar datasets, regardless of the observed clinical outcome. The ability of these metagenes to predict response to chemotherapy has been evaluated in completely independent set of cohorts. Unlike other existing unsupervised methods, by mandating the consistency of the weights of genes in the loading matrix, the consistent principal components are more likely to yield reproducible predictive power.
All microarray data sets used in this study were previously published and are available from several public data repositories, except for the BIDMC ovarian cancer data set, which was obtained from the authors . Each microarray data set was processed with RMA . For each cohort, a list of samples used in the analysis is provided in Additional file 1.
To determine the double-negative breast cancer (DNBC, not expressing ESR1 or HER2), we clustered each data set based on the probe levels of ESR1 and HER2 using the Partitioning Around Medoids (PAM) algorithm. The DNBC is determined by the cluster with consistent low expression of both genes.
Consistent Principal Components Analysis
Here, σ i is the standard deviation of probe set i, p is the number of probe sets, and ω j is the standard deviation explained by PC j (equal to the square root of the j'th eigenvalue). For each PC, we calculated the Pearson correlation coefficient (PCC) between its component scores and the expression level of each probe set and the significance of the correlation is assessed by Student's t-test. Probe sets with a P < 0.01 for PCC were selected to represent the PC. After the selection, each PC contains 42 to 211 representative probe sets.
Where J ij is the Jaccard index (the ratio between size of the intersection and the size of the union of the representative probe sets of component i and j) and C ij is the cosine correlation coefficient between the weights of the common representative probe sets of component i and j.
We used this distance function to perform average linkage hierarchical clustering on the selected PCs from all reference data sets. For each distinct cluster, we selected the set of genes found in at least two members.
Factor analysis and CEI calculation
We retrieved the RMA expression profile of the CPC genes from the reference data sets. When a gene was represented by multiple probe sets, we selected the probe set with largest standard deviation to represent that gene. For each of the expression matrices retrieved, we computed the standard z-scores for each gene and merged the matrices into one.
We performed factor analysis of the merged z-scores using the "varimax" rotation and with the number of factors set to six . For each factor we estimated the gene coefficients using the least-square method. Coefficients with an absolute value below 0.1 were set to zero, and the signs of the coefficients were used as the gene weights in the corresponding CEI.
Prediction and prognosis
The ROC curves were based on individual CEI scores and treatment response. We calculated the area under the curve (AUC) using the trapezoidal rule  and estimated statistical significance using the Wilcoxon rank sum test. Survival curves were generated using the Kaplan-Meier method. Hazard ratios were estimated for 5 year or 10 year follow-up by Cox regression in which the patients were stratified into two groups of equal size according to the median of the CEI score. Statistical significance was estimated using the log rank test.
Further details are available in Additional file 2.
Acknowledgements and Funding
This work was supported in part by the National Institutes of Health through grant 1PO1CA-092644-01 and by the Breast Cancer Research Foundation (ZS, ALR), by the Danish Council for Independent Research, Medical Sciences (FSS) (ZS, ACE), and by BioSim (NoE), FP6, LSHB-CT-2004-005137 (QL) and by the Harvard SPORE in breast cancer CA089393 (ZS, ALR).
We thank Wiktor Mazin for his suggestions, and Dimitrios Spentzos and Towia Libermann for providing the BIDMC data set.
expO data set was obtained from the International Genomic Consortium, http://www.intgen.org/expo/
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