Multi-cell type gene coexpression network analysis reveals coordinated interferon response and cross-cell type correlations in systemic lupus erythematosus

Genome Res. 2021 Apr;31(4):659-676. doi: 10.1101/gr.265249.120. Epub 2021 Mar 5.


Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) is an incurable autoimmune disease disproportionately affecting women. A major obstacle in finding targeted therapies for SLE is its remarkable heterogeneity in clinical manifestations as well as in the involvement of distinct cell types. To identify cell-specific targets as well as cross-correlation relationships among expression programs of different cell types, we here analyze six major circulating immune cell types from SLE patient blood. Our results show that presence of an interferon response signature stratifies patients into two distinct groups (IFNneg vs. IFNpos). Comparing these two groups using differential gene expression and differential gene coexpression analysis, we prioritize a relatively small list of genes from classical monocytes including two known immune modulators: TNFSF13B/BAFF (target of belimumab, an approved therapeutic for SLE) and IL1RN (the basis of anakinra, a therapeutic for rheumatoid arthritis). We then develop a multi-cell type extension of the weighted gene coexpression network analysis (WGCNA) framework, termed mWGCNA. Applying mWGCNA to RNA-seq data from six sorted immune cell populations (15 SLE, 10 healthy donors), we identify a coexpression module with interferon-stimulated genes (ISGs) among all cell types and a cross-cell type correlation linking expression of specific T helper cell markers to B cell response as well as to TNFSF13B expression from myeloid cells, all of which in turn correlates with disease severity of IFNpos patients. Our results demonstrate the power of a hypothesis-free and data-driven approach to discover drug targets and to reveal novel cross-correlation across cell types in SLE with implications for other autoimmune diseases.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • B-Lymphocytes / immunology
  • B-Lymphocytes / metabolism
  • Gene Regulatory Networks*
  • Humans
  • Interferons* / genetics
  • Interferons* / immunology
  • Lupus Erythematosus, Systemic* / drug therapy
  • Lupus Erythematosus, Systemic* / genetics
  • Lupus Erythematosus, Systemic* / immunology
  • Monocytes / immunology
  • Monocytes / metabolism
  • T-Lymphocytes, Helper-Inducer / immunology
  • T-Lymphocytes, Helper-Inducer / metabolism


  • Interferons