Detection of subtype-specific breast cancer surface protein biomarkers via a novel transcriptomics approach

Biosci Rep. 2021 Dec 22;41(12):BSR20212218. doi: 10.1042/BSR20212218.


Background: Cell-surface proteins have been widely used as diagnostic and prognostic markers in cancer research and as targets for the development of anticancer agents. So far, very few attempts have been made to characterize the surfaceome of patients with breast cancer, particularly in relation with the current molecular breast cancer (BRCA) classification. In this view, we developed a new computational method to infer cell-surface protein activities from transcriptomics data, termed 'SURFACER'.

Methods: Gene expression data from GTEx were used to build a normal breast network model as input to infer differential cell-surface proteins activity in BRCA tissue samples retrieved from TCGA versus normal samples. Data were stratified according to the PAM50 transcriptional subtypes (Luminal A, Luminal B, HER2 and Basal), while unsupervised clustering techniques were applied to define BRCA subtypes according to cell-surface proteins activity.

Results: Our approach led to the identification of 213 PAM50 subtypes-specific deregulated surface genes and the definition of five BRCA subtypes, whose prognostic value was assessed by survival analysis, identifying a cell-surface activity configuration at increased risk. The value of the SURFACER method in BRCA genotyping was tested by evaluating the performance of 11 different machine learning classification algorithms.

Conclusions: BRCA patients can be stratified into five surface activity-specific groups having the potential to identify subtype-specific actionable targets to design tailored targeted therapies or for diagnostic purposes. SURFACER-defined subtypes show also a prognostic value, identifying surface-activity profiles at higher risk.

Keywords: bioinformatics; biomarkers; breast cancer; master regulators; surfaceome; transcriptomics.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Biomarkers, Tumor / genetics*
  • Biomarkers, Tumor / metabolism
  • Breast Neoplasms / genetics*
  • Breast Neoplasms / metabolism
  • Breast Neoplasms / pathology
  • Case-Control Studies
  • Databases, Genetic
  • Female
  • Gene Expression Profiling*
  • Gene Expression Regulation, Neoplastic
  • Gene Regulatory Networks
  • Humans
  • Machine Learning*
  • Predictive Value of Tests
  • Prognosis
  • Protein Interaction Maps
  • Signal Transduction
  • Transcriptome*


  • Biomarkers, Tumor