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Pathway-based dissection of the genomic heterogeneity of cancer hallmarks' acquisition with SLAPenrich

By Francesco Iorio, Luz Garcia-Alonso, Jonathan S. Brammeld, Inigo Martincorena, David R. Wille, Ultan McDermott, Julio Saez-Rodriguez

Posted 27 Sep 2016
bioRxiv DOI: 10.1101/077701 (published DOI: 10.1038/s41598-018-25076-6)

Cancer hallmarks are evolutionary traits required by a tumour to develop. While extensively characterised, the way these traits are achieved through the accumulation of somatic mutations in key biological pathways is not fully understood. To shed light on this subject, we characterised the landscape of pathway alterations associated with somatic mutations observed in 4,415 patients across ten cancer types, using 374 orthogonal pathway gene-sets mapped onto canonical cancer hallmarks. Towards this end, we developed SLAPenrich: a computational method based on population-level statistics, freely available as an open source R package. Assembling the identified pathway alterations into sets of hallmark signatures allowed us to connect somatic mutations to clinically interpretable cancer mechanisms. Further, we explored the heterogeneity of these signatures, in terms of ratio of altered pathways associated with each individual hallmark, assuming that this is reflective of the extent of selective advantage provided to the cancer type under consideration. Our analysis revealed the predominance of certain hallmarks in specific cancer types, thus suggesting different evolutionary trajectories across cancer lineages. Finally, although many pathway alteration enrichments are guided by somatic mutations in frequently altered high-confidence cancer genes, excluding these driver mutations preserves the hallmark heterogeneity signatures, thus the detected hallmarks' predominance across cancer types. As a consequence, we propose the hallmark signatures as a ground truth to characterise tails of infrequent genomic alterations and identify potential novel cancer driver genes and networks.

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