Dissecting the Genetic Basis of Systemic Lupus Erythematosus : The Pursuit of Functional Variants

Sammanfattning: Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) is a chronic and systemic autoimmune disease that primarily affects women during the childbearing years. SLE is characterized by the production of autoantibodies against nucleic acids and their interacting proteins. The exact molecular mechanisms leading to the breakdown of self-tolerance remain to a large extent unknown, but it is well established that they are influenced by both non-genetic (i.e. environmental and hormonal) and genetic factors. SLE is a complex, polygenic disease. Several susceptibility variants have been identified in SLE. However, the functional role in disease pathogenesis for the majority of them remains largely unknown.This thesis includes case-control association studies where the role of the genes TNFSF4 (Paper I), STAT4 (Paper II), CD226 (Paper III), and BLK (Papers IV and V) in the susceptibility of developing SLE was investigated. The primary focus was on the identification of the functional variants underlying the association. For each of these genes, fine mapping was performed using single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs), the linkage disequilibrium (LD) was characterized, and the association was narrowed down to specific haplotypes by means of several different statistical genetic strategies. Candidate variants were prioritized for further functional analysis on the basis of their potential effect on the gene function, their association, and/or biological plausibility. In Paper I, the association of TNFSF4 with SLE was validated and attributed to a risk haplotype tagged by SNPs rs1234317-T and rs12039904-T. Paper II provides evidence supporting the presence of at least two independent genetic effects within the STAT4 gene represented by rs3821236-A and rs7574865-A, which correlated with increased levels of gene expression. In Paper III, a functional allele in CD226 (rs727088-C) was identified, which was responsible for decreased levels in both mRNA and protein expression. In Paper IV, two independent genetic effects in the BLK gene were demonstrated. The first one comprised multiple regulatory variants in high LD that were enriched for NFκB and IRF4 binding sites and correlated with low BLK mRNA levels. The second was a low-frequency missense substitution (Ala71Thr) that decreased the BLK protein half-life. In Paper V, a genetic epistatic interaction between BANK1 rs10516487 (GG) and BLK rs2736340 (TT+TC) was demonstrated. Additional molecular analyses established that these molecules interact physically.  These studies have contributed to the dissection of the genetic architecture of SLE. They highlight the allelic heterogeneity of the disease and provide functional links to the associated variants, which has significantly aided in the understanding of SLE disease pathogenesis.