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Transcriptional risk scores link GWAS to eQTLs and predict complications in Crohn's disease


Gene expression profiling can be used to uncover the mechanisms by which loci identified through genome-wide association studies (GWAS) contribute to pathology1,2. Given that most GWAS hits are in putative regulatory regions and transcript abundance is physiologically closer to the phenotype of interest2, we hypothesized that summation of risk-allele-associated gene expression, namely a transcriptional risk score (TRS), should provide accurate estimates of disease risk. We integrate summary-level GWAS and expression quantitative trait locus (eQTL) data with RNA-seq data from the RISK study, an inception cohort of pediatric Crohn's disease3,4. We show that TRSs based on genes regulated by variants linked to inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) not only outperform genetic risk scores (GRSs) in distinguishing Crohn's disease from healthy samples, but also serve to identify patients who in time will progress to complicated disease. Our dissection of eQTL effects may be used to distinguish genes whose association with disease is through promotion versus protection, thereby linking statistical association to biological mechanism. The TRS approach constitutes a potential strategy for personalized medicine that enhances inference from static genotypic risk assessment.

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Figure 1: Transcriptional risk scores integrate GWAS and eQTL results to measure individual risk of disease based on transcript abundance.
Figure 2: Transcriptional risk scores based on ileal gene expression at diagnosis distinguish status and course of Crohn's disease.
Figure 3: Gene expression polarized according to predicted direction of risk uncovers two divergent mechanisms of association with disease.
Figure 4: Incoherent genes show similar patterns in stimulated immune cells and are more weakly associated with IBD according to GWAS.

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We are grateful to B. Zeng, D. Arafat, H. Somineni, S. Venkateswaran, and colleagues from the Gibson and Kugathasan laboratories for their support and helpful comments. We also would like to thank I. Mendizabal, J. Lachance and K. Jordan for comments on the manuscript. This research was supported by Project 3 (G.G., PI) of the NIH program project “Statistical and Quantitative Genetics” grant P01-GM0996568 (B. Weir, University of Washington, Director) as well as research grants from the Crohn's and Colitis Foundation of America (CCFA), New York, to the individual study institutions participating in the RISK study.

Author information




U.M.M. and G.G. conceived the theoretical framework for the TRSs. L.A.D., J.S.H. and S.K. participated in the conception and design of the RISK study. K.M., J.P., T.D.W., A.G., J.D.N., W.V.C., J.R.R., D.R.M., R.K., M.B.H., S.S.B., M.C.S., R.N.B., J.F.M., M.C.D., B.J.A., M.-O. K. and J.C. recruited subjects, collected the data, and worked on its curation and analysis. U.M.M. performed the TRS analyses. U.M.M. and G.G. interpreted the results and drafted the manuscript, while L.A.D., J.S.H. and S.K. assisted with results interpretation and writing.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Greg Gibson.

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Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Integrated supplementary information

Supplementary Figure 1 Replicability of blood eQTL effects in ileal biopsies from the RISK study.

eQTLs detected in the vicinity of SNPs associated with IBD tend to show concordant effect size and direction in blood and ileum. The effects of 136 eQTLs available in ileum are shown (Supplementary Table 2). The x axis shows the β values for the eQTLs detected in peripheral blood from the Blood eQTL browser; the y axis shows the β values in the eQTL mapping study with ileal biopsies from the RISK study (see “Mapping study in the RISK cohort to build the ileal TRS” in the Online Methods). The dashed best-fitting least-squares regression line corresponds to Spearman r = 0.54 (P = 2 × 10−11). Values in the corners indicate the percentage of loci in each quadrant, showing that 70% are concordant in direction of effect in the two tissues (P = 1.7 × 10−6, sign test).

Supplementary Figure 2 Performance of the GRS and TRS based on the initial set of 157 candidate genes.

(a,b) Each plot shows the TRS based on 157 IBD genes associated with 96 eQTLs that are also associated with IBD or in LD with a SNP associated with the disease (Supplementary Table 1). The discriminatory performance of the GRS versus TRS based on these genes is shown for disease status: comparison of samples with Crohn’s disease (n = 210) and controls (n = 35) (a) and disease course (3-year period after diagnosis): comparison of samples that remain in non-complicated Crohn’s disease (B1; n = 183) and those that develop complicated disease (B2 and/or B3; n = 27) (b). The standardized GRS and TRS are shown on the y axis. Differences between groups (in s.d. units) along with P values (two-sided t test) are reported for each comparison.

Supplementary Figure 3 Selection of genes based on SMR and coloc results.

(a) Each point represents the –log10 (P value) (NLP) for the blood eQTL association and Crohn’s disease GWAS association for 157 candidate genes. Colors represent the significance of the SMR statistic, clearly showing that the most highly significant genes are strongly associated with both traits. Similar plots are observed for ulcerative colitis and IBD. All 39 genes with SMR P < 2.3 × 10−4 (red and brown dots) for all three disease classifications were included in the final SMR-based TRS. (b) The coloc H4 score estimates the posterior probability that the same causal variant drives both the GWAS and eQTL associations. This plot shows that poor SMR values (small NLPs) tend also to have low coloc H4 scores; however, only approximately half of the strong SMR values (large NLPs) have strong coloc H4 posterior probabilities. The 29 genes with coloc H4 greater than 0.8 for the three disease phenotypes were included in the final coloc-based TRS. This includes 14 genes not in the SMR set.

Supplementary Figure 4 Relationship between transcriptional risk scores and location of inflammation.

Because the Paris classification of pediatric Crohn’s disease includes location of disease, which was strongly correlated with the degree of inflammation in the ileum from which biopsies were obtained, we plot here the relationship between disease location and the 29-gene coloc-derived TRS. RISK study patients were classified into two categories according to the presence/absence of visible ileal inflammation in endoscopies performed at diagnosis (L1 (ileum-only) and L3 (ileocolonic) cases were classified as ‘inflamed’; L2 (colonic-only) cases were classified as ‘non-inflamed’). Only two of the cases that progressed to complicated disease were non-inflamed, which are not shown owing to low sample size. The TRS is slightly elevated in inflamed versus endoscopically non-inflamed B1 cases (P < 0.02) and is also elevated in B1 cases with non-inflamed ilea as compared to non-IBD controls (P < 1 × 10−6), confirming that the TRS picks up a signal that is related but complementary to inflammation. Complicated cases have an elevated TRS even relative to inflamed B1 cases (P < 7 × 10−4). A box plot of values is shown for each group along with P values for pairwise comparisons (two-sided t test).

Supplementary Figure 5 Performance of the GRS and TRS based on 39 susceptibility genes detected by SMR.

(a,b) Thirty-nine genes were detected by SMR as being under the control of 29 causal variants that account for the association detected by GWAS and the eQTL effect reported in the Blood eQTL browser (Supplementary Table 4). The performance of the GRS verus TRS based on these genes is shown for disease status: comparison of samples with Crohn’s disease (n = 210) versus non-IBD controls (n = 35) (a) and disease course (3-year period after diagnosis): comparison of samples that remain in non-complicated Crohn’s disease (B1; n = 183) versus those that develop complicated disease (B2 and/or B3; n = 27) (b). The standardized GRS and TRS are shown on the y axis. Differences between groups (in s.d. units) along with P values (two-sided t test) are reported for each comparison.

Supplementary Figure 6 Performance of PRSs based on LD-pruned variants at different significance inclusion thresholds.

(a,b) PRSs at different thresholds (Online Methods) successfully separate Crohn’s disease cases from non-IBD controls (a) but fail to distinguish according to development of complicated disease (b). The performance of PRSs using SNPs that pass a range of liberal P-value thresholds in GWAS analysis is shown (the inclusion threshold and total number of variants used are reported on the y axis). Differences between groups (in s.d. units) along with P values for each comparison are reported on the x axis.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Text and Figures

Supplementary Figures 1–6 (PDF 1128 kb)

Life Sciences Reporting Summary (PDF 170 kb)

Supplementary Table 1

eQTL association data in peripheral blood for 232 SNPs associated with IBD with genes <1 Mb away (7,389 SNP–gene pairs). (XLSX 1169 kb)

Supplementary Table 2

Replicability of blood eQTL effects in ileal tissue from the RISK study. (XLSX 58 kb)

Supplementary Table 3

coloc results for 163 SNP–gene pairs selected from the Blood eQTL browser. (XLSX 79 kb)

Supplementary Table 4

SMR results for 163 SNP–gene pairs selected from the Blood eQTL browser. (XLSX 86 kb)

Supplementary Table 5

eQTL association and coloc results for 46 genes controlled by SNPs associated with IBD in the RISK ileal eQTL mapping study. (XLSX 60 kb)

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Marigorta, U., Denson, L., Hyams, J. et al. Transcriptional risk scores link GWAS to eQTLs and predict complications in Crohn's disease. Nat Genet 49, 1517–1521 (2017).

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