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BMC Bioinformatics. 2019 Mar 18;20(1):145. doi: 10.1186/s12859-019-2716-6.

MGSEA - a multivariate Gene set enrichment analysis.

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Institute of Statistical Science, Academia Sinica, Taipei, Taiwan.
Institute of Statistical Science, Academia Sinica, Taipei, Taiwan.



Gene Set Enrichment Analysis (GSEA) is a powerful tool to identify enriched functional categories of informative biomarkers. Canonical GSEA takes one-dimensional feature scores derived from the data of one platform as inputs. Numerous extensions of GSEA handling multimodal OMIC data are proposed, yet none of them explicitly captures combinatorial relations of feature scores from multiple platforms.


We propose multivariate GSEA (MGSEA) to capture combinatorial relations of gene set enrichment among multiple platform features. MGSEA successfully captures designed feature relations from simulated data. By applying it to the scores of delineating breast cancer and glioblastoma multiforme (GBM) subtypes from The Cancer Genome Atlas (TCGA) datasets of CNV, DNA methylation and mRNA expressions, we find that breast cancer and GBM data yield both similar and distinct outcomes. Among the enriched functional categories, subtype-specific biomarkers are dominated by mRNA expression in many functional categories in both cancer types and also by CNV in many functional categories in breast cancer. The enriched functional categories belonging to distinct combinatorial patterns are involved different oncogenic processes: cell proliferation (such as cell cycle control, estrogen responses, MYC and E2F targets) for mRNA expression in breast cancer, invasion and metastasis (such as cell adhesion and epithelial-mesenchymal transition (EMT)) for CNV in breast cancer, and diverse processes (such as immune and inflammatory responses, cell adhesion, angiogenesis, and EMT) for mRNA expression in GBM. These observations persist in two external datasets (Molecular Taxonomy of Breast Cancer International Consortium (METABRIC) for breast cancer and Repository for Molecular Brain Neoplasia Data (REMBRANDT) for GBM) and are consistent with knowledge of cancer subtypes. We further compare the characteristics of MGSEA with several extensions of GSEA and point out the pros and cons of each method.


We demonstrated the utility of MGSEA by inferring the combinatorial relations of multiple platforms for cancer subtype delineation in three multi-OMIC datasets: TCGA, METABRIC and REMBRANDT. The inferred combinatorial patterns are consistent with the current knowledge and also reveal novel insights about cancer subtypes. MGSEA can be further applied to any genotype-phenotype association problems with multimodal OMIC data.


Gene set enrichment analysis; Multimodal OMIC data

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