Background: Several studies have reported gene expression signatures that predict recurrence risk in stage II and III colorectal cancer (CRC) patients with minimal gene membership overlap and undefined biological relevance. The goal of this study was to investigate biological themes underlying these signatures, to infer genes of potential mechanistic importance to the CRC recurrence phenotype and to test whether accurate prognostic models can be developed using mechanistically important genes.
Methods and findings: We investigated eight published CRC gene expression signatures and found no functional convergence in Gene Ontology enrichment analysis. Using a random walk-based approach, we integrated these signatures and publicly available somatic mutation data on a protein-protein interaction network and inferred 487 genes that were plausible candidate molecular underpinnings for the CRC recurrence phenotype. We named the list of 487 genes a NEM signature because it integrated information from Network, Expression, and Mutation. The signature showed significant enrichment in four biological processes closely related to cancer pathophysiology and provided good coverage of known oncogenes, tumor suppressors, and CRC-related signaling pathways. A NEM signature-based Survival Support Vector Machine prognostic model was trained using a microarray gene expression dataset and tested on an independent dataset. The model-based scores showed a 75.7% concordance with the real survival data and separated patients into two groups with significantly different relapse-free survival (p = 0.002). Similar results were obtained with reversed training and testing datasets (p = 0.007). Furthermore, adjuvant chemotherapy was significantly associated with prolonged survival of the high-risk patients (p = 0.006), but not beneficial to the low-risk patients (p = 0.491).
Conclusions: The NEM signature not only reflects CRC biology but also informs patient prognosis and treatment response. Thus, the network-based data integration method provides a convergence between biological relevance and clinical usefulness in gene signature development.