Preserving biological heterogeneity with a permuted surrogate variable analysis for genomics batch correction

Bioinformatics. 2014 Oct;30(19):2757-63. doi: 10.1093/bioinformatics/btu375. Epub 2014 Jun 6.


Motivation: Sample source, procurement process and other technical variations introduce batch effects into genomics data. Algorithms to remove these artifacts enhance differences between known biological covariates, but also carry potential concern of removing intragroup biological heterogeneity and thus any personalized genomic signatures. As a result, accurate identification of novel subtypes from batch-corrected genomics data is challenging using standard algorithms designed to remove batch effects for class comparison analyses. Nor can batch effects be corrected reliably in future applications of genomics-based clinical tests, in which the biological groups are by definition unknown a priori.

Results: Therefore, we assess the extent to which various batch correction algorithms remove true biological heterogeneity. We also introduce an algorithm, permuted-SVA (pSVA), using a new statistical model that is blind to biological covariates to correct for technical artifacts while retaining biological heterogeneity in genomic data. This algorithm facilitated accurate subtype identification in head and neck cancer from gene expression data in both formalin-fixed and frozen samples. When applied to predict Human Papillomavirus (HPV) status, pSVA improved cross-study validation even if the sample batches were highly confounded with HPV status in the training set.

Availability and implementation: All analyses were performed using R version 2.15.0. The code and data used to generate the results of this manuscript is available from

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Algorithms*
  • Artifacts
  • Computational Biology / methods
  • Genomics / methods*
  • Head and Neck Neoplasms / genetics*
  • Head and Neck Neoplasms / virology
  • Humans
  • Models, Statistical
  • Papillomavirus Infections / diagnosis*
  • Reproducibility of Results
  • Software