USMPep: Universal Sequence Models for Major Histocompatibility Complex Binding Affinity Prediction

Background: Immunotherapy is a promising route towards personalized cancer treatment. A key algorithmic challenge in this process is to decide if a given peptide (neoepitope) binds with the major histocompatibility complex (MHC). This is an active area of research and there are many MHC binding prediction algorithms that can predict the MHC binding affinity for a given peptide to a high degree of accuracy. However, most of the state-of-the-art approaches make use of complicated training and model selection procedures, are restricted to peptides of a certain length and/or rely on heuristics. Results: We put forward USMPep, a simple recurrent neural network that reaches state-of-the-art approaches on MHC class I binding prediction with a single, generic architecture and even a single set of hyperparameters both on IEDB benchmark datasets and on the very recent HPV dataset. Moreover, the algorithm is competitive for a single model trained from scratch, while ensembling multiple regressors and language model pretraining can still slightly improve the performance. The direct application of the approach to MHC class II binding prediction shows a solid performance despite of limited training data. Conclusions: We demonstrate that competitive performance in MHC binding affinity prediction can be reached with a standard architecture and training procedure without relying on any heuristics.

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