Cervical cancers are ranked the second-most hazardous ailments among women worldwide. In the past two decades, microarray technologies have been applied to study genes involved in malignancy progress. However, in most of the published microarray studies, only a few genes were reported leaving rather a large amount of data unused. Also, RNA-Seq data has become more standard for transcriptome analysis and is widely applied in cancer studies. There is a growing demand for a tool to help the experimental researchers who are keen to explore cervical cancer gene therapy, but lack computer expertise to access and analyze the high throughput gene expression data.
The dbCerEx database is designed to retrieve and process gene expression data from cervical cancer samples. It includes the genome wide expression profiles of cervical cancer samples, as well as a web utility to cluster genes with similar expression patterns. This feature will help researchers conduct further research to uncover novel gene functions.
The dbCerEx database is freely available for non-commercial use at http://184.108.40.206/dbCerEx/, and will be updated and integrated with more features as needed.
Citation: Zhou L, Zheng W, Luo M, Feng J, Jin Z, Wang Y, et al. (2014) dbCerEx: A Web-Based Database for the Analysis of Cervical Cancer Transcriptomes. PLoS ONE 9(6): e99834. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0099834
Editor: I. King Jordan, Georgia Institute of Technology, United States of America
Received: November 12, 2013; Accepted: May 19, 2014; Published: June 11, 2014
Copyright: © 2014 Zhou et al. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.
Funding: This study is supported by the National Natural Science Founds of China (Program No. 31202013), Specialized Research Fund for the Doctoral Program of Higher Education of China (Program No 20120146120007), Fundamental Research Funds for the Central Universities (Program No.2011QC075). The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.
Competing interests: The commercial company (Yichang Humanwell Pharmaceutical Co.,Ltd,), along with any other relating to employment, consultancy, patents, products in development or marketed products etc., have declared that no competing interests and Financial disclosure. This does not alter the authors’ adherence to PLOS ONE policies on sharing data and materials.
Cervical cancers account for the second-most gynecological cancer death cases worldwide, and this situation is worse in developing countries due to the lack of adequate organized screening programs. It is believed that Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) infections are the major causes of invasive cervical cancer .
Whole- genome expression profiling has revolutionized in the way we study disease and basic biology. Since 1997, the number of published results based on an analysis of gene expression microarray data has grown from 30 to over 5,000 publications per year . DNA microarray technologies aim at simultaneous measurements of the expression of thousands of genes in one single experiment. Over the past few years, this technology has facilitated better understanding of the complex and heterogeneous molecular characteristics of cancers and helped to improve treatment in cancers. For example, HOXC10 gene at first was identified to belong to the 171 significantly up-regulated genes in the cervical squamous cell carcinomas (SCC) relative to normal cervix samples from DNA microarray, which was later identified as a key mediator of invasion in cervical cancer . Archival RNA samples of 25 patients were hybridized to Stanford microarray chips to build a seven gene scoring system . This gene expression pattern could help to identify patients with cervical cancer who can be treated with radiotherapy alone. The specific expression profiles of candidate genes were selected to identify historical subtypes of cervical cancer . Furthermore, numerous candidate biomarkers and therapeutic targets have been identified in other cancers.
However, for most of the published microarray studies, only subsets of genes have been reported to demonstrate the authors’ hypothesis. The complete microarray datasets are stored in an unsystematic manner, and useful only to those with computational expertise. Also, RNA-Seq data has become more standard for transcriptome analysis and is widely applied in cancer studies. While for most of the experimental researchers, there also remain difficulties to utilize these cancer microarray databases and RNA-Seq data to solve biological questions. For example, if one novel gene of interest has a correlated (positive or negative) expression pattern with an apoptosis-related gene, it indicates that they may share the same regulatory mechanism, which could provide the potential research proposal for the novel gene.
Here we present dbCerEx, a database of gene expression profiles generated from DNA microarray experiments and RNA-Seq data. The database is provided with an integrated web-based utility, which has made the data easily accessible to the cervical cancer research community. According to this method, the experimental researchers could identify novel cervical cancer related genes and explore the relationships among them.
Construction and Content
Microarray and RNA-Seq Data
The microarray expression data (GSE matrix files) and platform annotation (GPL files) were retrieved from Gene Expression Omnibus (GEO) database  via a R /Bioconductor  ‘GEOquery’ package . The RNA-Seq data were retrieved from The Cancer Genome Atlas (TCGA) Data Portal , which contains clinical information, genomic characterization data and high level sequence analysis of the tumor genomes. The data was then log (base 2) transformed and median centred. To avoid computational error during calculation, the row that contained ‘NA’ value would be omitted.
The experiments were processed via various platforms (Table 1). To make the expression data searchable regardless of the platforms, the probes were remapped to official gene symbols. However, instead of gene symbol assignment information, some GPL files provided only NCBI GenBank  or NCBI Refseq  Accession Numbers mapping to probes. To solve this problem, the ‘gene2refseq’ and ‘gene2accesion’ files were retrieved from the NCBI ftp server via ftp://ftp.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/gene/DATA/. A Perl script was used to map gene symbols to these GenBank or RefSeq Accession Numbers, and eventually to the microarray probes. The gene expression flat files were stored for later accessing.
Predefined Gene Set
One important feature of this database is that it enables users to search similar gene candidates with genes they are studying based on the expression patterns. Relying on this method, researchers may find mechanisms among these genes, which may become a promising approach to discovering novel gene function. The gene sets predefined in the databases were retrieved from various sources and divided into two main categories: Gene Ontology (GO)  and Pathway. As shown in Table 2, the GO set consists of Biological process, Molecular functions and Cellular Component. While the Pathway set consists of KEGG , BIOCARTA (www.biocarta.com) and REACTOME . Human species of the gene sets were used in this work.
Gene Expression Cluster Analysis
The unsupervised hierarchical clustering algorithm was introduced to find the similar genes based on expression patterns. This attempt was processed using a combination of distance metrics and linkages. In this study, the distance from gene x to gene y defined as 1-rxy, where rxy represents the Pearson Correlation of gene x and y:
The dbCerEx database is a web-based utility combining a MySQL (http://www.mysql.com/) database management system [MySQL 5.5.32 (Community Server) with InnoDB engine]. The front-end web interface is enhanced by a java script framework, Bootstrap 2.3.1 (http://getbootstrap.com/). The PHP [version 5.3.10] (http://www.php.net/) applications receive the query from the user, are connected to the database to gather data, call external Perl and R scripts to process statistical analyze and generate HTML pages displaying results.
Utility and Discussion
The dbCerEx database is provided by a web-based interface. Users can start the search by entering one interested gene in the top input box, and then click on ‘Search’ button. A gene list will be shown in a new page for all the genes related to input gene keyword. Users can select a gene from the list according to the description to do expression analysis.
By clicking a gene, a general summary including full name, aliases and external links such as HNGC, Entrez Gene, Ensembl. MIM and Genecard for this gene will be shown. In the same page, users are allowed to set the parameters of expression analysis in cervical cancer. Users can enter an interested gene set by hand or from the gene set list such as KEGG, BIOCARTA, REACTOME and Gene Ontology. Users can select dataset from the precompiled cervical cancer expression datasets from microarray and RNASeq, or just provide a GEO accession number. By clicking the Submit Query button, the samples for the selected dataset will be listed. Users can select all or some interested samples to do expression analysis.
A heatmap displaying the hierarchical clustering of genes and samples will be shown (Figure 1). In addition, a heatmap that includes the significantly positively or negatively correlated genes with the interested gene will be also offered (Figure 2). The pearson correlation and p value will be shown as a table at the right side of the heatmap.
We present dbCerEx, a database containing cervical cancer gene expression profiles. In addition, it provides a novel utility for gene expression similarity search within certain interested gene sets. It is believed that dbCerEx is a powerful platform for bioinformatics discovery that brings cervical cancer microarray data and RNA-Seq data, and analysis of the cervical cancer research community with easy reach.
Availability and Requirements
The dbCerEx database website is available free of charge as a web application at: http://220.127.116.11/dbCerEx/.
Conceived and designed the experiments: YH. Performed the experiments: LZ WZ ZJ YW DZ QT. Analyzed the data: LZ ML JF. Contributed reagents/materials/analysis tools: YH. Wrote the paper: LZ YH.
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