Analysis of single-cell RNA-sequencing data identifies a hypoxic tumor subpopulation associated with poor prognosis in triple-negative breast cancer

Math Biosci Eng. 2022 Apr 6;19(6):5793-5812. doi: 10.3934/mbe.2022271.


Triple-negative breast cancer (TNBC) is an aggressive subtype of mammary carcinoma characterized by low expression levels of estrogen receptor (ER), progesterone receptor (PR), and human epidermal growth factor receptor 2 (HER2). Along with the rapid development of the single-cell RNA-sequencing (scRNA-seq) technology, the heterogeneity within the tumor microenvironment (TME) could be studied at a higher resolution level, facilitating an exploration of the mechanisms leading to poor prognosis during tumor progression. In previous studies, hypoxia was considered as an intrinsic characteristic of TME in solid tumors, which would activate downstream signaling pathways associated with angiogenesis and metastasis. Moreover, hypoxia-related genes (HRGs) based risk score models demonstrated nice performance in predicting the prognosis of TNBC patients. However, it is essential to further investigate the heterogeneity within hypoxic TME, such as intercellular communications. In the present study, utilizing single-sample Gene Set Enrichment Analysis (ssGSEA) and cell-cell communication analysis on the scRNA-seq data retrieved from Gene Expression Omnibus (GEO) database with accession number GSM4476488, we identified four tumor subpopulations with diverse functions, particularly a hypoxia-related one. Furthermore, results of cell-cell communication analysis revealed the dominant role of the hypoxic tumor subpopulation in angiogenesis- and metastasis-related signaling pathways as a signal sender. Consequently, regard the TNBC cohorts acquired from The Cancer Genome Atlas (TCGA) and GEO as train set and test set respectively, we constructed a risk score model with reliable capacity for the prediction of overall survival (OS), where ARTN and L1CAM were identified as risk factors promoting angiogenesis and metastasis of tumors. The expression of ARTN and L1CAM were further analyzed through tumor immune estimation resource (TIMER) platform. In conclusion, these two marker genes of the hypoxic tumor subpopulation played vital roles in tumor development, indicating poor prognosis in TNBC patients.

Keywords: cell-cell communication; hypoxia; prognosis; single-cell RNA-sequencing; triple-negative breast cancer.

MeSH terms

  • Humans
  • Hypoxia
  • Neural Cell Adhesion Molecule L1*
  • RNA
  • Receptors, Estrogen / metabolism
  • Triple Negative Breast Neoplasms* / genetics
  • Tumor Microenvironment


  • Neural Cell Adhesion Molecule L1
  • Receptors, Estrogen
  • RNA