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J Invest Dermatol. 2017 May;137(5):1033-1041. doi: 10.1016/j.jid.2016.12.007. Epub 2016 Dec 21.

A Functional Genomic Meta-Analysis of Clinical Trials in Systemic Sclerosis: Toward Precision Medicine and Combination Therapy.

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Department of Molecular and Systems Biology, Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth, Hanover, New Hampshire, USA.
Department of Neurological Sciences, Larner College of Medicine, University of Vermont, Burlington, Vermont, USA.
Department of Molecular and Systems Biology, Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth, Hanover, New Hampshire, USA. Electronic address:


Systemic sclerosis is an orphan, systemic autoimmune disease with no FDA-approved treatments. Its heterogeneity and rarity often result in underpowered clinical trials making the analysis and interpretation of associated molecular data challenging. We performed a meta-analysis of gene expression data from skin biopsies of patients with systemic sclerosis treated with five therapies: mycophenolate mofetil, rituximab, abatacept, nilotinib, and fresolimumab. A common clinical improvement criterion of -20% or -5 modified Rodnan skin score was applied to each study. We applied a machine learning approach that captured features beyond differential expression and was better at identifying targets of therapies than the differential expression alone. Regardless of treatment mechanism, abrogation of inflammatory pathways accompanied clinical improvement in multiple studies suggesting that high expression of immune-related genes indicates active and targetable disease. Our framework allowed us to compare different trials and ask if patients who failed one therapy would likely improve on a different therapy, based on changes in gene expression. Genes with high expression at baseline in fresolimumab nonimprovers were downregulated in mycophenolate mofetil improvers, suggesting that immunomodulatory or combination therapy may have benefitted these patients. This approach can be broadly applied to increase tissue specificity and sensitivity of differential expression results.

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