Identification of pleiotropic cancer susceptibility variants from genome-wide association studies reveals functional characteristics

Author(s): Wu Y, Graff RE, Passarelli MN, Hoffman JD, Ziv E, et al.


Background: There exists compelling evidence that some genetic variants are associated with the risk of multiple cancer sites (i.e., pleiotropy). However, the biological mechanisms through which the pleiotropic variants operate are unclear.

Methods: We obtained all cancer risk associations from the National Human Genome Research Institute-European Bioinformatics Institute GWAS Catalog, and correlated cancer risk variants were clustered into groups. Pleiotropic variant groups and genes were functionally annotated. Associations of pleiotropic cancer risk variants with noncancer traits were also obtained.

Results: We identified 1,431 associations between variants and cancer risk, comprised of 989 unique variants associated with 27 unique cancer sites. We found 20 pleiotropic variant groups (2.1%) composed of 33 variants (3.3%), including novel pleiotropic variants rs3777204 and rs56219066 located in the ELL2 gene. Relative to single-cancer risk variants, pleiotropic variants were more likely to be in genes (89.0% vs. 65.3%, P = 2.2 × 10−16), and to have somewhat larger risk allele frequencies (median RAF = 0.49 versus 0.39, P = 0.046). The 27 genes to which the pleiotropic variants mapped were suggestive for enrichment in response to radiation and hypoxia, alpha-linolenic acid metabolism, cell cycle, and extension of telomeres. In addition, we observed that 8 of 33 pleiotropic cancer risk variants were associated with 16 traits other than cancer.

Conclusions: This study identified and functionally characterized genetic variants showing pleiotropy for cancer risk.

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