Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Gene expression meta-analysis supports existence of molecular apocrine breast cancer with a role for androgen receptor and implies interactions with ErbB family

Sandeep Sanga12, Bradley M Broom3, Vittorio Cristini12 and Mary E Edgerton124*

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Biomedical Engineering, The University of Texas at Austin, Austin, TX, USA

2 School of Health Information Sciences, The University of Texas Health Science Center, Houston, TX, USA

3 Department of Bioinformatics and Computational Biology, The University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, Houston, TX, USA

4 Department of Pathology, The University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, Houston, TX, USA

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BMC Medical Genomics 2009, 2:59  doi:10.1186/1755-8794-2-59

Published: 11 September 2009



Pathway discovery from gene expression data can provide important insight into the relationship between signaling networks and cancer biology. Oncogenic signaling pathways are commonly inferred by comparison with signatures derived from cell lines. We use the Molecular Apocrine subtype of breast cancer to demonstrate our ability to infer pathways directly from patients' gene expression data with pattern analysis algorithms.


We combine data from two studies that propose the existence of the Molecular Apocrine phenotype. We use quantile normalization and XPN to minimize institutional bias in the data. We use hierarchical clustering, principal components analysis, and comparison of gene signatures derived from Significance Analysis of Microarrays to establish the existence of the Molecular Apocrine subtype and the equivalence of its molecular phenotype across both institutions. Statistical significance was computed using the Fasano & Franceschini test for separation of principal components and the hypergeometric probability formula for significance of overlap in gene signatures. We perform pathway analysis using LeFEminer and Backward Chaining Rule Induction to identify a signaling network that differentiates the subset. We identify a larger cohort of samples in the public domain, and use Gene Shaving and Robust Bayesian Network Analysis to detect pathways that interact with the defining signal.


We demonstrate that the two separately introduced ER- breast cancer subsets represent the same tumor type, called Molecular Apocrine breast cancer. LeFEminer and Backward Chaining Rule Induction support a role for AR signaling as a pathway that differentiates this subset from others. Gene Shaving and Robust Bayesian Network Analysis detect interactions between the AR pathway, EGFR trafficking signals, and ErbB2.


We propose criteria for meta-analysis that are able to demonstrate statistical significance in establishing molecular equivalence of subsets across institutions. Data mining strategies used here provide an alternative method to comparison with cell lines for discovering seminal pathways and interactions between signaling networks. Analysis of Molecular Apocrine breast cancer implies that therapies targeting AR might be hampered if interactions with ErbB family members are not addressed.