The rapidly expanding availability of high-resolution mass spectrometry has substantially enhanced the ion-current-based relative quantification techniques. Despite the increasing interest in ion-current-based methods, quantitative sensitivity, accuracy, and false discovery rate remain the major concerns; consequently, comprehensive evaluation and development in these regards are urgently needed. Here we describe an integrated, new procedure for data normalization and protein ratio estimation, termed ICan, for improved ion-current-based analysis of data generated by high-resolution mass spectrometry (MS). ICan achieved significantly better accuracy and precision, and lower false-positive rate for discovering altered proteins, over current popular pipelines. A spiked-in experiment was used to evaluate the performance of ICan to detect small changes. In this study E. coli extracts were spiked with moderate-abundance proteins from human plasma (MAP, enriched by IgY14-SuperMix procedure) at two different levels to set a small change of 1.5-fold. Forty-five (92%, with an average ratio of 1.71 ± 0.13) of 49 identified MAP protein (i.e., the true positives) and none of the reference proteins (1.0-fold) were determined as significantly altered proteins, with cutoff thresholds of ≥1.3-fold change and p ≥ 0.05. This is the first study to evaluate and prove competitive performance of the ion-current-based approach for assigning significance to proteins with small changes. By comparison, other methods showed remarkably inferior performance. ICan can be broadly applicable to reliable and sensitive proteomic survey of multiple biological samples with the use of high-resolution MS. Moreover, many key features evaluated and optimized here such as normalization, protein ratio determination, and statistical analyses are also valuable for data analysis by isotope-labeling methods.
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