Immunedeconv ships with an example dataset with samples from four patients with metastatic melanoma published in (Racle et al. 2017). It is available from immunedeconv::dataset_racle. It contains a gene expression matrix (dataset_racle$expr_mat) generated using bulk RNA-seq and ‘gold standard’ estimates of immune cell contents profiled with FACS (dataset_racle$ref). We are going to use the bulk RNA-seq data to run the deconvolution methods and will compare the results to the FACS data later on.

The gene expression data is a matrix with HGNC symbols in rows and samples in columns: The dataset is a matrix

# show the first 5 lines of the gene expression matrix
knitr::kable(dataset_racle$expr_mat[1:5, ])
LAU125 LAU355 LAU1255 LAU1314
A1BG 0.82 0.58 0.81 0.71
A1CF 0.00 0.01 0.00 0.00
A2M 247.15 24.88 2307.94 20.30
A2M-AS1 1.38 0.20 2.60 0.28
A2ML1 0.03 0.00 0.05 0.02

To estimate immune cell fractions, we simply have to invoke the deconvolute function. It requires the specification of one of the following methods for deconvolution:

##       MCPcounter             EPIC        quanTIseq            xCell 
##    "mcp_counter"           "epic"      "quantiseq"          "xcell" 
##        CIBERSORT CIBERSORT (abs.)            TIMER     ConsensusTME 
##      "cibersort"  "cibersort_abs"          "timer"  "consensus_tme" 
##             ABIS         ESTIMATE 
##           "abis"       "estimate"

For this example, we use quanTIseq. As a result, we obtain a cell_type x sample data frame with cell-type scores for each sample.

res_quantiseq <- deconvolute(dataset_racle$expr_mat, "quantiseq", tumor = TRUE)

QuanTIseq generates scores that can be interpreted as a cell-type fraction. Let’s visualize the results as a stacked bar chart with tidyverse/ggplot2.

res_quantiseq %>%
  gather(sample, fraction, -cell_type) %>%
  # plot as stacked bar chart
  ggplot(aes(x = sample, y = fraction, fill = cell_type)) +
  geom_bar(stat = "identity") +
  coord_flip() +
  scale_fill_brewer(palette = "Paired") +
  scale_x_discrete(limits = rev(levels(res_quantiseq)))

We observe that

  • the first two samples (LAU355, LAU1314) appear to contain a large amount of CD4+ T cells and B cells
  • the last two samples (LAU1255, LAU125) appear to contain a large amount of “uncharacterized cells”
  • the last sample (LAU125) appears to contain no CD8+ T cells, often associated with bad prognosis.

Estimating the amount of “uncharacterized cells” is a novel feature introduced by quanTIseq and EPIC Finotello et al. (2019). This estimate often corresponds to the fraction of tumor cells in the sample.

Let’s now apply MCP-counter to the same dataset.

res_mcp_counter <- deconvolute(dataset_racle$expr_mat, "mcp_counter")

MCP-counter provides scores in arbitrary units that are only comparable between samples, but not between cell-types. The visualisation as bar-chart suggests the scores to be cell-type fractions and is, therefore, unsuitable. Instead, we use ggplot to visualize the scores per-cell type, allowing for a relative comparison between samples.

res_mcp_counter %>%
  gather(sample, score, -cell_type) %>%
  ggplot(aes(x = sample, y = score, color = cell_type)) +
  geom_point(size = 4) +
  facet_wrap(~cell_type, scales = "free_x", ncol = 3) +
  scale_color_brewer(palette = "Paired", guide = FALSE) +
  coord_flip() +
  theme_bw() +
  theme(axis.text.x = element_text(angle = 90, vjust = 0.5, hjust = 1))

With the scores being in arbitrary units, the results are not useful for judging if a cell type is present in the sample, or not. However, we can compare the relative values between samples and relate them to the results we obtained earlier using quanTIseq.

  • Consistent with quanTIseq, MCP-counter predicts B cells to be more abundant in LAU355 and LAU1314 than in the other two samples.
  • Also consistent with quanTIseq, the last LAU125 appears to contain significantly less CD8+ T cells than the other samples.
  • the estimates for Neutrophils and Monocytes are inconsistent with quanTIseq.

Comparison with FACS data

Let’s now compare the results with ‘gold standard’ FACS data obtained for the four samples. This is, of course, not a representative benchmark, but it gives a notion about what magnitude of predictive accuracy we can expect.

# construct a single dataframe containing all data
# re-map the cell-types to common names.
# only include the cell-types that are measured using FACS
cell_types <- c("B cell", "T cell CD4+", "T cell CD8+", "NK cell")

tmp_quantiseq <- res_quantiseq %>%
  map_result_to_celltypes(cell_types, "quantiseq") %>%
  rownames_to_column("cell_type") %>%
  gather("sample", "estimate", -cell_type) %>%
  mutate(method = "quanTIseq")
tmp_mcp_counter <- res_mcp_counter %>%
  map_result_to_celltypes(cell_types, "mcp_counter") %>%
  rownames_to_column("cell_type") %>%
  gather("sample", "estimate", -cell_type) %>%
  mutate(method = "MCP-counter")

result <- bind_rows(tmp_quantiseq, tmp_mcp_counter) %>%

Plot the true vs. estimated values:

result %>%
  ggplot(aes(x = true_fraction, y = estimate)) +
  geom_point(aes(shape = cell_type, color = cell_type)) +
  facet_wrap(cell_type ~ method, scales = "free_y", ncol = 2) +
  scale_color_brewer(palette = "Dark2") +

(MCP counter does not provide estimates for CD4+ T cells.)


Finotello, Francesca, Clemens Mayer, Christina Plattner, Gerhard Laschober, Dietmar Rieder, Hubert Hackl, Anne Krogsdam, et al. 2019. “Molecular and Pharmacological Modulators of the Tumor Immune Contexture Revealed by Deconvolution of RNA-Seq Data.” Genome Medicine 11 (1): 34.
Racle, Julien, Kaat de Jonge, Petra Baumgaertner, Daniel E Speiser, and David Gfeller. 2017. Simultaneous enumeration of cancer and immune cell types from bulk tumor gene expression data.” eLife 6 (November): e26476.