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Why do pathway methods work better than they should?

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Pathway analysis methods are frequently applied to cancer gene expression data to identify dysregulated pathways. These methods often infer pathway activity based on the expression of genes belonging to a given pathway, even though the proteins ultimately determine the activity of a given pathway. Furthermore, the association between gene expression levels and protein activities is not well-characterized. Here, we posit that pathway-based methods are effective not because of the correlation between expression and activity of members of a given pathway, but because pathway gene sets overlap with the genes regulated by transcription factors (TFs). Thus, pathway-based methods do not inform about the activity of the pathway of interest but rather reflect changes in TF activities.