Single-cell RNA sequencing studies have suggested that total mRNA content correlates with tumor phenotypes. Technical and analytical challenges, however, have so far impeded at-scale pan-cancer examination of total mRNA content. Here we present a method to quantify tumor-specific total mRNA expression (TmS) from bulk sequencing data, taking into account tumor transcript proportion, purity and ploidy, which are estimated through transcriptomic/genomic deconvolution. We estimate and validate TmS in 6,590 patient tumors across 15 cancer types, identifying significant inter-tumor variability. Across cancers, high TmS is associated with increased risk of disease progression and death. TmS is influenced by cancer-specific patterns of gene alteration and intra-tumor genetic heterogeneity as well as by pan-cancer trends in metabolic dysregulation. Taken together, our results indicate that measuring cell-type-specific total mRNA expression in tumor cells predicts tumor phenotypes and clinical outcomes.
© 2022. The Author(s).