Network-based approaches elucidate differences within APOBEC and clock-like signatures in breast cancer

Yoo-Ah Kim, Damian Wojtowicz, Rebecca Sarto Basso, Itay Sason, Welles Robinson, Dorit S Hochbaum, Mark D M Leiserson, Roded Sharan, Fabio Vadin, Teresa M Przytycka
Genome Medicine 2020 May 29, 12 (1): 52

BACKGROUND: Studies of cancer mutations have typically focused on identifying cancer driving mutations that confer growth advantage to cancer cells. However, cancer genomes accumulate a large number of passenger somatic mutations resulting from various endogenous and exogenous causes, including normal DNA damage and repair processes or cancer-related aberrations of DNA maintenance machinery as well as mutations triggered by carcinogenic exposures. Different mutagenic processes often produce characteristic mutational patterns called mutational signatures. Identifying mutagenic processes underlying mutational signatures shaping a cancer genome is an important step towards understanding tumorigenesis.

METHODS: To investigate the genetic aberrations associated with mutational signatures, we took a network-based approach considering mutational signatures as cancer phenotypes. Specifically, our analysis aims to answer the following two complementary questions: (i) what are functional pathways whose gene expression activities correlate with the strengths of mutational signatures, and (ii) are there pathways whose genetic alterations might have led to specific mutational signatures? To identify mutated pathways, we adopted a recently developed optimization method based on integer linear programming.

RESULTS: Analyzing a breast cancer dataset, we identified pathways associated with mutational signatures on both expression and mutation levels. Our analysis captured important differences in the etiology of the APOBEC-related signatures and the two clock-like signatures. In particular, it revealed that clustered and dispersed APOBEC mutations may be caused by different mutagenic processes. In addition, our analysis elucidated differences between two age-related signatures-one of the signatures is correlated with the expression of cell cycle genes while the other has no such correlation but shows patterns consistent with the exposure to environmental/external processes.

CONCLUSIONS: This work investigated, for the first time, a network-level association of mutational signatures and dysregulated pathways. The identified pathways and subnetworks provide novel insights into mutagenic processes that the cancer genomes might have undergone and important clues for developing personalized drug therapies.

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