Convolutional neural network models for cancer type prediction based on gene expression

Milad Mostavi, Yu Chiao Chiu, Yufei Huang, Yidong Chen

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

118 Scopus citations


Background: Precise prediction of cancer types is vital for cancer diagnosis and therapy. Through a predictive model, important cancer marker genes can be inferred. Several studies have attempted to build machine learning models for this task however none has taken into consideration the effects of tissue of origin that can potentially bias the identification of cancer markers. Results: In this paper, we introduced several Convolutional Neural Network (CNN) models that take unstructured gene expression inputs to classify tumor and non-tumor samples into their designated cancer types or as normal. Based on different designs of gene embeddings and convolution schemes, we implemented three CNN models: 1D-CNN, 2D-Vanilla-CNN, and 2D-Hybrid-CNN. The models were trained and tested on gene expression profiles from combined 10,340 samples of 33 cancer types and 713 matched normal tissues of The Cancer Genome Atlas (TCGA). Our models achieved excellent prediction accuracies (93.9-95.0%) among 34 classes (33 cancers and normal). Furthermore, we interpreted one of the models, 1D-CNN model, with a guided saliency technique and identified a total of 2090 cancer markers (108 per class on average). The concordance of differential expression of these markers between the cancer type they represent and others is confirmed. In breast cancer, for instance, our model identified well-known markers, such as GATA3 and ESR1. Finally, we extended the 1D-CNN model for the prediction of breast cancer subtypes and achieved an average accuracy of 88.42% among 5 subtypes. The codes can be found at Conclusions: Here we present novel CNN designs for accurate and simultaneous cancer/normal and cancer types prediction based on gene expression profiles, and unique model interpretation scheme to elucidate biologically relevance of cancer marker genes after eliminating the effects of tissue-of-origin. The proposed model has light hyperparameters to be trained and thus can be easily adapted to facilitate cancer diagnosis in the future.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number44
JournalBMC Medical Genomics
StatePublished - Apr 3 2020


  • Breast cancer subtype prediction
  • Cancer gene markers
  • Cancer type prediction
  • Convolutional neural networks
  • Deep learning
  • The Cancer Genome Atlas

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Genetics(clinical)
  • Genetics


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