Associating transcriptomics data with inflammatory markers to understand tumour microenvironment in hepatocellular carcinoma

Basak Bahcivanci, Roshan Shafiha, Georgios V Gkoutos, Animesh Acharjee

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Background: Liver cancer is the fourth leading cause of cancer-related death globally which is estimated to reach more than 1 million deaths a year by 2030. Among liver cancer types, hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) accounts for approximately 90% of the cases and is known to have a tumour promoting inflammation regardless of its underlying aetiology. However, current promising treatment approaches, such as immunotherapy, are partially effective for most of the patients due to the immunosuppressive nature of the tumour microenvironment (TME). Therefore, there is an urgent need to fully understand TME in HCC and discover new immune markers to eliminate resistance to immunotherapy. Methods: We analyse three microarray datasets, using unsupervised and supervised methods, in an effort to discover signature genes. First, univariate, and multivariate, feature selection methods, such as the Boruta algorithm, are applied. Subsequently, an optimisation procedure, which utilises random forest algorithm with three dataset pairs combinations, is performed. The resulting optimal gene sets are then combined and further subjected to network analysis and pathway enrichment analysis so as to obtain information related to their biological relevance. The microarray datasets were analysed via the MCP-counter, CIBERSORT, TIMER, EPIC, and quanTIseq deconvolution methods and an estimation of cell type abundances for each dataset sample were identified. The differences in the cell type abundances, between the adjacent and tumour sample groups, were then assessed using a Wilcoxon Rank Sum test (p-value < 0.05). Results: The optimal gene signature sets, derived from each of the data pairs combination, achieved AUC values ranging from 0.959 to 0.988 in external validation sets using Random Forest model. CLEC1B and PTTG1 genes are retrieved across each optimal set. Among the signature genes, PTTG1, AURKA, and UBE2C genes are found to be involved in the regulation of mitotic sister chromatid separation and anaphase-promoting complex (APC) dependent catabolic process (adjusted p-value < 0.001). Additionally, the application of deconvolution algorithms revealed significant changes in cell type abundances of Regulatory T (Treg) cells, M0 and M1 macrophages, and T CD8 + cells between adjacent and tumour samples. Conclusion: We identified ECM1 gene as a potential immune-related marker acting through immune cell migration and macrophage polarisation. Our results indicate that macrophages, such as M0 macrophage and M1 macrophage cells, undergo significant changes in HCC TME. Moreover, our immune deconvolution approach revealed significant infiltration of Treg cells and M0 macrophages, and a significant decrease in T CD8 + cells and M1 macrophages in tumour samples.

Original languageEnglish
JournalCancer Medicine
Early online date18 Jun 2022
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 18 Jun 2022

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
Animesh Acharjeeand Georgios V. Gkoutosacknowledge support from the NIHR Birmingham ECMC, NIHR Birmingham SRMRC, Nanocommons H2020‐EU (731032) and the NIHR Birmingham Biomedical Research Centre, and the MRC Health Data Research UK (HDRUK/CFC/01), an initiative funded by UK Research and Innovation, Department of Health and Social Care (England) and the devolved administrations, and leading medical research charities. The views expressed in this publication are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the NHS, the National Institute for Health Research, the Medical Research Council or the Department of Health.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2022 The Authors. Cancer Medicine published by John Wiley & Sons Ltd.


  • gene signature
  • hepatocellular carcinoma
  • immune deconvolution
  • tumor microenvironment


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