Investigating the relevance of major signaling pathways in cancer survival using a biologically meaningful deep learning model

Jiarui Feng, Heming Zhang, Fuhai Li

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

9 Scopus citations


Background: Survival analysis is an important part of cancer studies. In addition to the existing Cox proportional hazards model, deep learning models have recently been proposed in survival prediction, which directly integrates multi-omics data of a large number of genes using the fully connected dense deep neural network layers, which are hard to interpret. On the other hand, cancer signaling pathways are important and interpretable concepts that define the signaling cascades regulating cancer development and drug resistance. Thus, it is important to investigate potential associations between patient survival and individual signaling pathways, which can help domain experts to understand deep learning models making specific predictions. Results: In this exploratory study, we proposed to investigate the relevance and influence of a set of core cancer signaling pathways in the survival analysis of cancer patients. Specifically, we built a simplified and partially biologically meaningful deep neural network, DeepSigSurvNet, for survival prediction. In the model, the gene expression and copy number data of 1967 genes from 46 major signaling pathways were integrated in the model. We applied the model to four types of cancer and investigated the influence of the 46 signaling pathways in the cancers. Interestingly, the interpretable analysis identified the distinct patterns of these signaling pathways, which are helpful in understanding the relevance of signaling pathways in terms of their application to the prediction of cancer patients’ survival time. These highly relevant signaling pathways, when combined with other essential signaling pathways inhibitors, can be novel targets for drug and drug combination prediction to improve cancer patients’ survival time. Conclusion: The proposed DeepSigSurvNet model can facilitate the understanding of the implications of signaling pathways on cancer patients’ survival by integrating multi-omics data and clinical factors.

Original languageEnglish
Article number47
JournalBMC bioinformatics
Issue number1
StatePublished - Dec 2021


  • Deep learning
  • Signaling pathways
  • Survival analysis
  • TCGA


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