Integrated analysis of single-cell and bulk RNA-sequencing reveals tumor heterogeneity and a signature based on NK cell marker genes for predicting prognosis in hepatocellular carcinoma
Background: Natural killer (NK) cells are a type of innate immune cell that recognize and eliminate tumor cells and infected cells, without prior sensitization or activation. Herein, we aimed to construct a predictive model based on NK cell-related genes for hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) patients and assess the feasibility of utilizing this model for prognosis prediction. Methods: Single-cell RNA-seq data were obtained from the Gene Expression Omnibus (GEO) database to identify marker genes of NK cells. Univariate Cox and lasso regression were performed to further establish a signature in the TCGA dataset. Subsequently, qPCR and immunohistochemistry (IHC) staining were employed to validate the expression levels of prognosis signature genes in HCC. The effectiveness of the model was further validated using two external cohorts from the GEO and ICGC datasets. Clinical characteristics, prognosis, tumor mutation burden, immune microenvironments, and biological function were compared for different genetic subtypes and risk groups. Finally, molecular docking was performed to evaluate the binding affinity between the hub gene and chemotherapeutic drugs. Results: A total of 161 HCC-related NK cell marker genes (NKMGs) were identified, 28 of which were significantly associated with overall survival in HCC patients. Based on differences in gene expression characteristics, HCC patients were classified into three subtypes. Ten prognosis genes (KLRB1, CD7, LDB2, FCER1G, PFN1, FYN, ACTG1, PABPC1, CALM1, and RPS8) were screened to develop a prognosis model. The model not only demonstrated excellent predictive performance on the training dataset, but also were successfully validated on two independent external datasets. The risk scores derived from the model were shown to be an independent prognosis factor for HCC and were correlated with pathological severity. Moreover, qPCR and IHC staining confirmed that the expression of the prognosis genes was generally consistent with the results of the bioinformatic analysis. Finally, molecular docking revealed favorable binding energies between the hub gene ACTG1 and chemotherapeutic drugs. Conclusion: In this study, we developed a model for predicting the prognosis of HCC based on NK cells. The utilization of NKMGs as innovative biomarkers showed promise in the prognosis assessment of HCC.