Many high-throughput experiments compare two phenotypes such as disease vs. healthy, with the goal of understanding the underlying biological phenomena characterizing the given phenotype. Because of the importance of this type of analysis, more than 70 pathway analysis methods have been proposed so far. These can be categorized into two main categories: non-topology-based (non-TB) and topology-based (TB). Although some review papers discuss this topic from different aspects, there is no systematic, large-scale assessment of such methods. Furthermore, the majority of the pathway analysis approaches rely on the assumption of uniformity of p values under the null hypothesis, which is often not true.
This article presents the most comprehensive comparative study on pathway analysis methods available to date. We compare the actual performance of 13 widely used pathway analysis methods in over 1085 analyses. These comparisons were performed using 2601 samples from 75 human disease data sets and 121 samples from 11 knockout mouse data sets. In addition, we investigate the extent to which each method is biased under the null hypothesis. Together, these data and results constitute a reliable benchmark against which future pathway analysis methods could and should be tested.
Overall, the result shows that no method is perfect. In general, TB methods appear to perform better than non-TB methods. This is somewhat expected since the TB methods take into consideration the structure of the pathway which is meant to describe the underlying phenomena. We also discover that most, if not all, listed approaches are biased and can produce skewed results under the null.