Differential expression analysis has led to the identification of important biomarkers in oesophageal squamous cell carcinoma (ESCC). Despite enormous contributions, it has not harnessed the full potential of gene expression data, such as interactions among genes. Differential co-expression analysis has emerged as an effective tool that complements differential expression analysis to provide better insight of dysregulated mechanisms and indicate key driver genes. Here, we analysed the differential co-expression of lncRNAs and protein-coding genes (PCGs) between normal oesophageal tissue and ESCC tissues, and constructed a lncRNA-PCG differential co-expression network (DCN). DCN was characterized as a scale-free, small-world network with modular organization. Focusing on lncRNAs, a total of 107 differential lncRNA-PCG subnetworks were identified from the DCN by integrating both differential expression and differential co-expression. These differential subnetworks provide a valuable source for revealing lncRNA functions and the associated dysfunctional regulatory networks in ESCC. Their consistent discrimination suggests that they may have important roles in ESCC and could serve as robust subnetwork biomarkers. In addition, two tumour suppressor genes (AL121899.1 and ELMO2), identified in the core modules, were validated by functional experiments. The proposed method can be easily used to investigate differential subnetworks of other molecules in other cancers.
© 2020 The Authors. Journal of Cellular and Molecular Medicine published by Foundation for Cellular and Molecular Medicine and John Wiley & Sons Ltd.