Novel deep learning-based solution for identification of prognostic subgroups in liver cancer (Hepatocellular carcinoma)

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BACKGROUND: Liver cancer (Hepatocellular carcinoma; HCC) prevalence is increasing and with poor clinical outcome expected it means greater understanding of HCC aetiology is urgently required. This study explored a deep learning solution to detect biologically important features that distinguish prognostic subgroups. A novel architecture of an Artificial Neural Network (ANN) trained with a customised objective function (LRSC) was developed. The ANN should discover new data representations, to detect patient subgroups that are biologically homogenous (clustering loss) and similar in survival (survival loss) while removing noise from the data (reconstruction loss). The model was applied to TCGA-HCC multi-omics data and benchmarked against baseline models that only use a reconstruction objective function (BCE, MSE) for learning. With the baseline models, the new features are then filtered based on survival information and used for clustering patients. Different variants of the customised objective function, incorporating only reconstruction and clustering losses (LRC); and reconstruction and survival losses (LRS) were also evaluated. Robust features consistently detected were compared between models and validated in TCGA and LIRI-JP HCC cohorts.

RESULTS: The combined loss (LRSC) discovered highly significant prognostic subgroups (P-value = 1.55E-77) with more accurate sample assignment (Silhouette scores: 0.59-0.7) compared to baseline models (0.18-0.3). All LRSC bottleneck features (N = 100) were significant for survival, compared to only 11-21 for baseline models. Prognostic subgroups were not explained by disease grade or risk factors. Instead LRSC identified robust features including 377 mRNAs, many of which were novel (61.27%) compared to those identified by the other losses. Some 75 mRNAs were prognostic in TCGA, while 29 were prognostic in LIRI-JP also. LRSC also identified 15 robust miRNAs including two novel (hsa-let-7g; hsa-mir-550a-1) and 328 methylation features with 71% being prognostic. Gene-enrichment and Functional Annotation Analysis identified seven pathways differentiating prognostic clusters.

CONCLUSIONS: Combining cluster and survival metrics with the reconstruction objective function facilitated superior prognostic subgroup identification. The hybrid model identified more homogeneous clusters that consequently were more biologically meaningful. The novel and prognostic robust features extracted provide additional information to improve our understanding of a complex disease to help reveal its aetiology. Moreover, the gene features identified may have clinical applications as therapeutic targets.

Original languageEnglish
Article number563
JournalBMC Bioinformatics
Publication statusPublished - 24 Nov 2021

Bibliographical note

© 2021. The Author(s).


  • Carcinoma, Hepatocellular/genetics
  • Deep Learning
  • Humans
  • Liver Neoplasms/genetics
  • Prognosis
  • RNA, Messenger


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