Joint analysis of expression profiles from multiple cancers improves the identification of microRNA–gene interactions

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MicroRNAs (miRNAs) play a crucial role in tumorigenesis and development through their effects on target genes. The characterization of miRNA–gene interactions will lead to a better understanding of cancer mechanisms. Many computational methods have been developed to infer miRNA targets with/without expression data. Because expression datasets are in general limited in size, most existing methods concatenate datasets from multiple studies to form one aggregated dataset to increase sample size and power. However, such simple aggregation analysis results in identifying miRNA–gene interactions that are mostly common across datasets, whereas specific interactions may be missed by these methods. Recent releases of The Cancer Genome Atlas data provide paired expression profiling of miRNAs and genes in multiple tumors with sufficiently large sample size. To study both common and cancer-specific interactions, it is desirable to develop a method that can jointly analyze multiple cancers to study miRNA–gene interactions without combining all the data into one single dataset.


We developed a novel statistical method to jointly analyze expression profiles from multiple cancers to identify miRNA–gene interactions that are both common across cancers and specific to certain cancers. The benefit of this joint analysis approach is demonstrated by both simulation studies and real data analysis of The Cancer Genome Atlas datasets. Compared with simple aggregate analysis or single sample analysis, our method can effectively use the shared information among different but related cancers to improve the identification of miRNA–gene interactions. Another useful property of our method is that it can estimate similarity among cancers through their shared miRNA–gene interactions.

Availability and implementation:

The program, MCMG, implemented in R is available at


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