Developers versus consumers of bioinformatics analysis tools

Life in the middle

As a bioinformatics applications scientist, I work in a middle ground between those who develop code for analyzing next-gen sequencing data and those who consume that analysis.   The developers are often people trained in computer science, mathematics, and statistics.   The consumers are often people trained in biology and medicine.    There is some overlap, of course, but if you’ll allow a broad generalization, I think the two groups (developers and consumers) are separated by large cultural differences in science.

Ensemble focus vs. single-gene focus

I think one of the biggest differences from my experience is the approach to conceptualizing the results of a next-gen seq experiment (e.g., RNA-seq).    People on the methods side tend to think in terms of ensembles and distributions.   They are interested in how the variation observed across all 30,000 genes can be modeled and used to estimate differential expression.   They are interested in concepts like shrinkage estimators, bayesian priors, and hypothesis weighting.  The table of differentially expressed features is thought to have meaning mainly in the statistical analysis of pathway enrichment (another ensemble).

Conversely, biologists have a drastically different view.   Often they care about a single gene or a handful of genes and how those genes vary across conditions of interest in the system that they are studying.  This is a rational response to the complexity of biological systems; no one can keep the workings of hundreds of genes in mind.  In order to make progress, you must focus.  However, this narrow focus leads investigators to sometimes cherry pick results pertaining to their ‘pet’ genes.  This can invest those results with more meaning than is warranted from a single experiment.

The gene-focus of biologists also leads to clashes with the ensemble-focus of bioinformatics software.  For example, major DE analysis packages like DESeq2 do not have convenience functions to make volcano plots, even though I’ve found that those kinds of plots are the most useful and easiest to understand for biologists.   Sleuth does have a volcano plotting function, but doesn’t allow for labeling genes.  In my experience, however, biologists want a high-res figure with common name gene labels (not ensemble transcript IDs) that they can circle and consider for wet lab validation.

New software to address the divide?

I am hopeful about the recent release of the new “bcbioRNASeq” package from Harvard Chan school bioinformatics (developers of ‘bcbio’ RNA-seq pipeline software).   It appears to be a step towards making it easier for people like me to walk on both sides of this cultural divide.    The package takes all of the outputs of the ‘bcbio’ pipeline and transforms them into an accessible S4 object that can be operated on quickly and simply within R.

Most importantly, the ‘bcbioRNASeq’ module allows for improved graphics and plotting that make communication with biologists easier.  For example, the new MA and volcano plots appear to be based on ‘ggplot2’ graphics and are quite pretty (and have text label options(!), not shown here):

I still need to become familiar with the ‘bcbioRNASeq’ package, but it looks quite promising.   ‘pcaExplorer‘ is another R/Bioconductor package that I feel does a great job of making accessible RNA-seq reports quickly and easy.  I suspect we will see continued improvements to make plots prettier and more informative, with an increasing emphasis on interactive, online plots and notebooks rather than static images.

Confounding in *-seq experiments

I see a lot of experimental design that is confounded.  Please read this important essay to understand why this must be avoided to have quality results from expensive *-seq experiments.

Confounded designs ruin experiments. Current batch effect removal methods will not save you. If you are designing a large genomics experiments, learn about randomization.


Breakthrough advances in 2018 so far: flu, germs, and cancer

2018 medicine breakthrough review!

So far this year has seen some pretty important research breakthrough advances in several key areas of health and medicine.  I want to briefly describe some of what we’ve seen in just the first few months of 2018.


A pharmaceutical company in Japan has released phase 3 trial results showing that its drug, Xofluza, can effectively kill the virus in just 24 hours in infected humans.  And it can do this with just one single dose, compared to a 10-dose, three day regimen of Tamiflu. The drug works by inhibiting an endonuclease needed for replication of the virus.


It is common knowledge that antibiotics are over-prescribed and over-used.  This fact has led to the rise of MRSA and other resistant bacteria which threaten human health.  Although it is thought that bacteria could be a source of novel antibiotics since they are in constant chemical warfare with each other, most bacteria aren’t culture-friendly in the lab and so researchers haven’t been looking at them for leads.  Until now.

Malacidin drugs kill multi-drug resistant S. Aureus in tests on rats.

By adopting whole genome sequencing approaches to soil bacterial diversity, researchers were able to screen for gene clusters associated with calcium-binding motifs known for antibiotic activity.   The result was the discovery of a novel class of lipo-peptides, called malacidins A and B.  They showed potent activity against MRSA in skin infection models in rats.

The researchers estimate that 99% of bacterial natural-product antibiotic compounds remain unexplored at present.


2017 and 2018 have seen some major advances with cancer treatment.   It seems that the field is moving away from the focus on small-molecule drugs towards harnessing the patient’s own immune system to attack cancer.  The CAR-T therapies for pediatric leukemia appear extremely promising.  These kinds of therapies are now in trials for a wide range of blood and solid tumors.

A great summary of the advances being made is available here from the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.   Here is how Dr. Gilliland, President of Fred Hutch, begins his review of the advances:

I’ve gone on record to say that by 2025, cancer researchers will have developed curative therapeutic approaches for most if not all cancers.

I took some flak for putting that stake in the ground. But we in the cancer research field are making incredible strides toward better and safer, potentially curative treatments for cancer, and I’m excited for what’s next. I believe that we must set a high bar, execute and implement — that there should be no excuses for not advancing the field at that pace.

This is a stunning statement on its own;  but made even more so because it is usually the scientists in the day-to-day trenches of research who are themselves the most pessimistic about the possibility of rapid advances.

Additionally, an important paper came out recently proposing a novel paradigm for understanding and modeling cancer incidence with age.  For a long time the dominant model has been the “two-hit” hypothesis which predicts that clinically-observable cancers arise when a cell acquires sufficient mutations in tumor-suppressor genes to become a tumor.

This paper challenges that notion and shows that a model of thymic function decline (the thymus produces T-cells) over time better describes the incidence of cancers with age.   This model better fits the data and leads to the conclusion that cancers are continually arising in our bodies, but it is our properly functioning immune system that roots them out and prevents clinical disease from emerging.  This model also helps explain why novel cancer immunotherapies are so potent and why focus has shifted to supporting and activating T-cells.

Declining T cell production leads to increasing disease incidence with age.


Genomic landscape of metastatic cancer

Integrative genomics sheds new light on metastatic cancer

A new study from the University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center has just been released that represents an in-depth look at the genomics of metastatic cancer, as opposed to primary tumors.   This work involved DNA- and RNA-Seq of solid metastatic tumors of 500 adult patients, as well as matched normal tissue sequencing for detection of somatic vs. germline variants.


A good overview of the study at the level of scientific layperson can be found in this press release.  It summarizes the key findings (many of which are striking and novel):

  • A significant increase in mutational burden of metastatic tumors vs. primary tumors.
  • A long-tailed distribution of mutational frequencies (i.e., few genes were mutated at a high rate, yet many genes were mutated).
  • About twelve percent of patients harbored germline variants that are suspected to predispose to cancer and metastasis, and 75% of those variants were in DNA repair pathways.
  • Across the cohort, 37% of patient tumors harbored gene fusions that either drove metastasis or suppressed the cells anti-tumor functions.
  • RNA-Seq showed that metastatic tumors are significantly de-differentiated, and fall into two classes:  proliferative and EMT-like (endothelial-to-mesenchymal transition).

 A brief look at the data

This study provides a high-level view onto the mutational burden of metastatic cancer vis-a-vis primary tumors.  Figure 1C from the paper shows the comparison of mutation rates in different tumor types in the TCGA (The Cancer Genome Atlas) primary tumors and the MET500 (metastatic cohort).

Mutational burden in metastatic cancer compared to primary tumors.


Here we can see that in most cases (colored bars), metastatic cancers had statistically significant increases in mutational rates.   The figure shows that tumors with low mutational rates “sped up” a lot as compared with those primary tumor types that already had high rates.

Supplemental Figure 1d (below) shows how often key tumor suppressor and oncogenes are altered in metastatic cancer vs. primary tumors.  TP53 is found to be altered more frequently in metastatic thyroid, colon, lung, prostate, breast, and bladder cancers.   PTEN is mutated more in prostate tumors.  GNAS and PIK3CA are mutated more in thymoma, although this finding doesn’t reach significance in this case.  KRAS is altered more in colon and esophagus cancers, but again, these findings don’t reach significance after multiple correction.

Comparison of genetic alteration frequencies in metastatic and primary tumors.


One other figure I’d like to highlight briefly is Figure 3C from the paper, shown below:

Molecular structure of novel, potentially activating gene fusions in the metastatic tumors.

I wanted to mention this figure to illustrate the terrifying complexity of cancer.   Knowing which oncogenes are mutated, in which positions, and the effects of those mutations on gene expression networks is not enough to understand tumor evolution and metastasis.  There are also new genes being created that do totally new things, and these are unique on a per tumor basis.   None of the above structures have ever been observed before, and yet they were all seen from a survey of just 500 cancers.   In fact, ~40% of the tumors in the study cohort harbored at least one fusion suspected to be pathogenic.

There is much more to this work, but I will leave it to interested readers to go read the entire study.   I think this work is obviously tremendously important and novel, and represents the future of personalized medicine.  That is, a patient undergoing treatment for cancer will have their tumor or tumors biopsied and sequenced cumulatively over time to understand how the disease has evolved and is evolving, and to ascertain what weaknesses can be exploited for successful treatment.