Montreal, QC – A consortium of Canadian and American researchers led by Dr John Rioux, associate professor of medicine at the Montreal Heart Institute and the Universit de Montral, report in the April 15 online edition of Nature Genetics the results from a search of the entire human genome for genetic risk factors leading to the development of Crohn’s disease.
Specifically, using a novel approach, the authors identified that the PHOX2B, NCF4 and ATG16L1 genes constitute genetic risk factors for Crohn’s disease. In addition, their study identified two regions of the genome where genetic risk factors are located but no known genes were implicated – further work will be necessary to identify the causal genes in these regions.
More than one million Americans and some 170,000 Canadians have Crohn’s or colitis, known collectively as inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). The study’s authors represent the IBD Genetics Consortium, which is funded by the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK) of the National Institutes of Health. In addition to the Montreal Heart Institute and Universit de Montral, the Consortium’s member institutions include the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, the University of Chicago, the Johns Hopkins University, the University of Pittsburgh, the University of Toronto, and Yale University.
Because IBD tends to run in families and is more frequent in certain ethnic populations, especially Ashkenazi Jews, scientists have long suspected a significant genetic component. Although previous genetic studies found a link between Crohn’s disease and mutations in a gene known as CARD15, those mutations alone are not considered to account for the entire genetic component of disease. To identify additional genes that are associated with IBD, the international team of researchers scanned the genome-all of 22,000 or so genes- by testing more than 300,000 single nucleotide polymorphisms, or SNPs, in people with Crohn’s disease and in healthy controls. The comparison of these SNPs (common genetic variants) between patient and control groups identified multiple SNPs that were strongly associated with Crohn’s disease. These findings were then tested in two additional sets of patients and healthy controls in order to confirm their results.
According to Dr Rioux, the findings highlight numerous biological pathways not previously thought to play a role in Crohn’s disease. “The identification of the PHOX2B gene in this study, for example, may implicate a role for neuroendocrine cells of the intestinal epithelium as having a role to play in Crohn’s Disease,” he says. “In addition, the identification of the NCF4 gene indicates that altered reactive oxygen species (ROS) production, important in the generation of an effective anti-microbial response, may lead to increased risk to developing Crohn’s disease”.
The fact that the authors also found strong association of the ATG16L1 gene provides further evidence that an individual’s response to microbes has an influence on susceptibility to Crohn’s disease.
Specifically, in addition to demonstrating its association to disease, these authors have shown that ATG16L1 is essential for the normal autophagic process used to degrade worn-out cellular components and help eliminate some pathogenic bacteria. “We propose that genetic variation in the ATG16L1 gene leads to alterations in how the body uses autophagy and therefore may result in increased persistence of both cellular and bacterial components, leading to inappropriate immune activation and increased risk of Crohn’s disease” adds Dr Rioux.
The findings reported in this study are expected to not only improve on the biological understanding of disease but should also have a long-term impact on clinical practice. According to Dr Edmond-Jean Bernard, co-author and gastroenterologist at the Hotel Dieu Hospital in Montreal and the Universit de Montral, “the multiple genetic risk factors we’ve identified provide important molecular targets for current functional studies aimed at understanding the disease and important targets for drug development to improve therapy of Crohn’s disease in the future.”