The genetic architecture toolkit – modeling polygenic disease with rare variants

Architecture. Even though we often write about novel gene findings in the epilepsies, we assume that most epilepsies are complex genetic or polygenic. Polygenic inheritance suggests the genetic architecture is composed of multiple interacting genetic risk factors, each contributing a small proportion to the disease risk. However, when using the phrase genetic architecture, sometimes I am not quite sure what I actually mean by this. For example, how many genes are needed? This is why I wanted to build a model genetic architecture and explore what happens if we build a genetic disease solely from rare risk variants. Follow me to a brief back-of-the-envelope calculation of how this might work.

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Mining GWAS mountains for missing heritability

What is missing? The catchy term “missing heritability” refers to a long-standing issue in human genetics that is particularly relevant to common diseases that are thought to have complex genetic architecture. Even though we know several thousands of risk factors for common diseases, the sum of all these risk factors only explains a small proportion of the genetic risk for disease. Where is all the remaining genetic disease risk hidden? A recent publication in PLOS Genetics suggests that known association peaks in genome-wide association studies (GWAS) may harbor more than one risk variant, turning GWAS peaks into mountain ranges. Also, this publication provides an interesting state-of-the art review on the role of common and rare variants with respect to missing heritability. Let’s turn back the clock and start with the decade-old debate on common versus rare variant models of human disease. Continue reading

Guilt by association: SCN1A in Temporal Lobe Epilepsy

GWAS. Genome-wide association studies investigate the association of common genetic variants with disease in large patient samples. While this approach has been very successful in many other diseases, the results in epilepsy research have been less convincing. Given the complexity of epilepsy phenotypes, selection of the right epilepsy phenotype has been an ongoing debate. Now, a recent study in Brain finds an intronic variant of the SCN1A gene that is associated with Temporal Lobe Epilepsy (TLE), the most common epilepsy in man. Interestingly, the association with SCN1A seems to be specific for only a particular subtype of focal epilepsies. Continue reading

Close encounters of the third kind – rare genetic variants in families

A new beast. Rare genetic variants probably account for a significant fraction of the genetic liability to many common and rare disorders. Rare variants occupy the liability space between monogenic variants and common genetic variants. Their existence has often been postulated, and genetic investigations looking at copy number variants have elucidated some examples of rare variants. These rare variants appear to carry particular properties that are quite unexpected including the way that these variants run in families. Now, in a recent paper in the European Journal of Human Genetics, we have developed a model of the way rare variants behave in families. And there is a lot of misbehaving. Continue reading