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Leveraging gene co-regulation to identify gene sets enriched for disease heritability

By Katherine M Siewert-Rocks, Samuel S Kim, Douglas Yao, Huwenbo Shi, Alkes Price

Posted 26 Jul 2021
bioRxiv DOI: 10.1101/2021.07.22.453442

Identifying gene sets that are associated to disease can provide valuable biological knowledge, but a fundamental challenge of gene set analyses of GWAS data is linking disease-associated SNPs to genes. Transcriptome-wide association studies (TWAS) can be used to detect associations between the genetically predicted expression of a gene and disease risk, thus implicating candidate disease genes. However, causal disease genes at TWAS-associated loci generally remain unknown due to gene co-regulation, which leads to correlations across genes in predicted expression. We developed a new method, gene co-regulation score (GCSC) regression, to identify gene sets that are enriched for disease heritability explained by the predicted expression of causal disease genes in the gene set. GCSC regresses TWAS chi-square statistics on gene co-regulation scores reflecting correlations in predicted gene expression; GCSC determines that a gene set is enriched for disease heritability if genes with high co-regulation to the gene set have higher TWAS chi-square statistics than genes with low co-regulation to the gene set, beyond what is expected based on co-regulation to all genes. We verified via simulations that GCSC is well-calibrated, and well-powered to identify gene sets that are enriched for disease heritability explained by predicted expression. We applied GCSC to gene expression data from GTEx (48 tissues) and GWAS summary statistics for 43 independent diseases and complex traits (average N=344K), analyzing a broad set of biological pathways and specifically expressed gene sets. We identified many enriched gene sets, recapitulating known biology. For Alzheimer's disease, we detected evidence of an immune basis, and specifically a role for antigen presentation, in analyses of both biological pathways and specifically expressed gene sets. Our results highlight the advantages of leveraging gene co-regulation within the TWAS framework to identify gene sets associated to disease.

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