Differential variation analysis enables detection of tumor heterogeneity using single-cell RNA-sequencing data

Emily F. Davis-Marcisak, Thomas D. Sherman, Pranay Orugunta, Genevieve L. Stein-O'Brien, Sidharth V. Puram, Evanthia Roussos Torres, Alexander C. Hopkins, Elizabeth M. Jaffee, Alexander V. Favorov, Bahman Afsari, Loyal A. Goff, Elana J. Fertig

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

5 Scopus citations


Tumor heterogeneity provides a complex challenge to cancer treatment and is a critical component of therapeutic response, disease recurrence, and patient survival. Single-cell RNA-sequencing (scRNA-seq) technologies have revealed the prevalence of intratumor and intertumor heterogeneity. Computational techniques are essential to quantify the differences in variation of these profiles between distinct cell types, tumor subtypes, and patients to fully characterize intratumor and intertumor molecular heterogeneity. In this study, we adapted our algorithm for pathway dysregulation, Expression Variation Analysis (EVA), to perform multivariate statistical analyses of differential variation of expression in gene sets for scRNA-seq. EVA has high sensitivity and specificity to detect pathways with true differential heterogeneity in simulated data. EVA was applied to several public domain scRNA-seq tumor datasets to quantify the landscape of tumor heterogeneity in several key applications in cancer genomics such as immunogenicity, metastasis, and cancer subtypes. Immune pathway heterogeneity of hematopoietic cell populations in breast tumors corresponded to the amount of diversity present in the T-cell repertoire of each individual. Cells from head and neck squamous cell carcinoma (HNSCC) primary tumors had significantly more heterogeneity across pathways than cells from metastases, consistent with a model of clonal outgrowth. Moreover, there were dramatic differences in pathway dysregulation across HNSCC basal primary tumors. Within the basal primary tumors, there was increased immune dysregulation in individuals with a high proportion of fibroblasts present in the tumor microenvironment. These results demonstrate the broad utility of EVA to quantify intertumor and intratumor heterogeneity from scRNA-seq data without reliance on low-dimensional visualization.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)5102-5112
Number of pages11
JournalCancer Research
Issue number19
StatePublished - Oct 1 2019

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Oncology
  • Cancer Research


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