Systemic sclerosis (SSc) is an autoimmune disease characterized by fibrosis of the skin and internal organs. Dysregulation of the immune system, including the Th1/Th2 cytokine balance, is central to the pathogenesis of SSc. This study was undertaken to investigate the hypothesis that single-nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) in TBX21 and STAT4, both of which are critical transcription factors that regulate the Th1/Th2 balance, are associated with SSc susceptibility.
We tested SNPs in TBX21 and STAT4 for association with SSc in 2 independent cohorts, the SSc Registry cohort (880 SSc cases and 507 controls) and the University of Texas SSc cohort (522 cases and 531 controls). Additional white control genotypes were obtained from public repositories. We also investigated for gene–gene interactions. Plasma cytokines and whole blood gene expression profiles were examined to determine functional effects of these SNPs.
Multiple SNPs in TBX21 and STAT4 were found to be associated with SSc. In a combined analysis of 902 SSc patients and 4,745 controls, TT genotyping of the TBX21 rs11650354 variant revealed a recessive pattern for disease susceptibility (Pcorr = 1.4 × 10−15, odds ratio 3.37, 95% confidence interval 2.4–4.6). In an analysis of 1,039 SSc patients and 3,322 controls, the A allele of the STAT4 variant rs11889341 was associated with increased SSc susceptibility in a dominant pattern (Pcorr = 2.4 × 10−5, odds ratio 1.29, 95% confidence interval 1.2–1.5). Furthermore, we identified gene–gene interaction among the TBX21 and STAT4 variants, such that the STAT4 genotype increased the risk of SSc only in the TBX21 CC genotype group. SSc patients carrying the TBX21 CC genotype had higher interleukin-6 (IL-6) and tumor necrosis factor α levels, and those with the TT genotype had elevated IL-2, IL-5, IL-4, and IL-13 (Th2) levels, compared with controls. Whole blood expression profiles revealed dysregulation of type I interferon pathways in the CC group and T cell pathways in the TT group of the TBX21 SNP.
The present results, from studies of 2 independent cohorts, indicate that SNPs in TBX21 and STAT4 contribute uniquely and interactively to SSc susceptibility, leading to altered cytokine balance and immune dysregulation.