Permutation-based identification of important biomarkers for complex diseases via machine learning models

Xinlei Mi, Baiming Zou, Fei Zou, Jianhua Hu*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

12 Scopus citations


Study of human disease remains challenging due to convoluted disease etiologies and complex molecular mechanisms at genetic, genomic, and proteomic levels. Many machine learning-based methods have been developed and widely used to alleviate some analytic challenges in complex human disease studies. While enjoying the modeling flexibility and robustness, these model frameworks suffer from non-transparency and difficulty in interpreting each individual feature due to their sophisticated algorithms. However, identifying important biomarkers is a critical pursuit towards assisting researchers to establish novel hypotheses regarding prevention, diagnosis and treatment of complex human diseases. Herein, we propose a Permutation-based Feature Importance Test (PermFIT) for estimating and testing the feature importance, and for assisting interpretation of individual feature in complex frameworks, including deep neural networks, random forests, and support vector machines. PermFIT (available at is implemented in a computationally efficient manner, without model refitting. We conduct extensive numerical studies under various scenarios, and show that PermFIT not only yields valid statistical inference, but also improves the prediction accuracy of machine learning models. With the application to the Cancer Genome Atlas kidney tumor data and the HITChip atlas data, PermFIT demonstrates its practical usage in identifying important biomarkers and boosting model prediction performance.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number3008
JournalNature communications
Issue number1
StatePublished - Dec 1 2021

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Chemistry(all)
  • Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology(all)
  • Physics and Astronomy(all)


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