PLoS Computational Biology

Dark-matter matters: Discriminating subtle blood cancers using the darkest DNA

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The confluence of deep sequencing and powerful machine learning is providing an unprecedented peek at the darkest of the dark genomic matter, the non-coding genomic regions lacking any functional annotation. While deep sequencing uncovers rare tumor variants, the heterogeneity of the disease confounds the best of machine learning (ML) algorithms. Here we set out to answer if the dark-matter of the genome encompass signals that can distinguish the fine subtypes of disease that are otherwise genomically indistinguishable. We introduce a novel stochastic regularization, ReVeaL, that empowers ML to discriminate subtle cancer subtypes even from the same ‘cell of origin’. Analogous to heritability, implicitly defined on whole genome, we use predictability (F1 score) definable on portions of the genome. In an effort to distinguish cancer subtypes using dark-matter DNA, we applied ReVeaL to a new WGS dataset from 727 patient samples with seven forms of hematological cancers and assessed the predictivity over several genomic regions including genic, non-dark, non-coding, non-genic, and dark. ReVeaL enabled improved discrimination of cancer subtypes for all segments of the genome. The non-genic, non-coding and dark-matter had the highest F1 scores, with dark-matter having the highest level of predictability. Based on ReVeaL’s predictability of different genomic regions, dark-matter contains enough signal to significantly discriminate fine subtypes of disease. Hence, the agglomeration of rare variants, even in the hitherto unannotated and ill-understood regions of the genome, may play a substantial role in the disease etiology and deserve much more attention.