The majority of the genetic variance of systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) remains unexplained by the common disease-common variant hypothesis. Rare variants, which are not detectable by genome-wide association studies because of their low frequencies, are predicted to explain part of this ”missing heritability.” However, recent studies identifying rare variants within known disease-susceptibility loci have failed to show genetic associations because of their extremely low frequencies, leading to the questioning of the contribution of rare variants to disease susceptibility. A common (minor allele frequency = 17.4% in cases) nonsynonymous coding variant rs1143679 (R77H) in ITGAM (CD11b), which forms half of the heterodimeric integrin receptor, complement receptor 3 (CR3), is robustly associated with SLE and has been shown to impair CR3-mediated phagocytosis.
We resequenced ITGAM in 73 SLE cases and identified two previously unidentified, case-specific nonsynonymous variants, F941V and G1145S. Both variants were genotyped in 2,107 and 949 additional SLE cases, respectively, to estimate their frequencies in a disease population. An in vitro model was used to assess the impact of F941V and G1145S, together with two nonsynonymous ITGAM polymorphisms, A858V (rs1143683) and M441T (rs11861251), on CR3-mediated phagocytosis. A paired two-tailed t test was used to compare the phagocytic capabilities of each variant with that of wild-type CR3.
Both rare variants, F941V and G1145S, significantly impair CR3-mediated phagocytosis in an in vitro model (61% reduction, P = 0.006; 26% reduction, P = 0.0232). However, neither of the common variants, M441T and A858V, had an effect on phagocytosis. Neither rare variant was observed again in the genotyping of additional SLE cases, suggesting that there frequencies are extremely low.
Our results add further evidence to the functional importance of ITGAM in SLE pathogenesis through impaired phagocytosis. Additionally, this study provides a new example of the identification of rare variants in common-allele-associated loci, which, because of their extremely low frequencies, are not statistically associated. However, the demonstration of their functional effects adds support to their contribution to disease risk, and questions the current notion of dismissing the contribution of very rare variants on purely statistical analyses.