The ubiquitous daily rhythms in mammalian physiology are guided by progression of the circadian clock. In mice, systemic disruption of the clock can promote tumor growth. In vitro, multiple oncogenes can disrupt the clock. However, due to the difficulties of studying circadian rhythms in solid tissues in humans, whether the clock is disrupted within human tumors has remained unknown. We sought to determine the state of the circadian clock in human cancer using publicly available transcriptome data. We developed a method, called the clock correlation distance (CCD), to infer circadian clock progression in a group of samples based on the co-expression of 12 clock genes. Our method can be applied to modestly sized datasets in which samples are not labeled with time of day and coverage of the circadian cycle is incomplete. We used the method to define a signature of clock gene co-expression in healthy mouse organs, then validated the signature in healthy human tissues. By then comparing human tumor and non-tumor samples from twenty datasets of a range of cancer types, we discovered that clock gene co-expression in tumors is consistently perturbed. Subsequent analysis of data from clock gene knockouts in mice suggested that perturbed clock gene co-expression in human cancer is not caused solely by the inactivation of clock genes. Furthermore, focusing on lung cancer, we found that human lung tumors showed systematic changes in expression in a large set of genes previously inferred to be rhythmic in healthy lung. Our findings suggest that clock progression is dysregulated in many solid human cancers and that this dysregulation could have broad effects on circadian physiology within tumors. In addition, our approach opens the door to using publicly available data to infer circadian clock progression in a multitude of human phenotypes.
Keywords: Cancer; Circadian clock; Gene co-expression; Transcriptome.