Targeted sequencing of sixteen SLE risk loci among 1349 Caucasian cases and controls produced a comprehensive dataset of the variations causing susceptibility to systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE). Two independent disease association signals in the HLA-D region identified two regulatory regions containing 3562 polymorphisms that modified thirty-seven transcription factor binding sites. These extensive functional variations are a new and potent facet of HLA polymorphism. Variations modifying the consensus binding motifs of IRF4 and CTCF in the XL9 regulatory complex modified the transcription of HLA-DRB1, HLA-DQA1 and HLA-DQB1 in a chromosome-specific manner, resulting in a 2.5-fold increase in the surface expression of HLA-DR and DQ molecules on dendritic cells with SLE risk genotypes, which increases to over 4-fold after stimulation. Similar analyses of fifteen other SLE risk loci identified 1206 functional variants tightly linked with disease-associated SNPs and demonstrated that common disease alleles contain multiple causal variants modulating multiple immune system genes.
The human immune system defends the body against microbes and other threats. However, if this process goes wrong the immune system can attack the body’s own healthy cells, which can lead to serious autoimmune diseases.
Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) is an autoimmune disease in which immune cells often attack internal organs – including the kidneys, nervous system and heart. Over the past decade, multiple genes have been linked with an increased risk of SLE. However, it is largely unknown how the sequences of these genes differ between individuals with SLE and healthy individuals, and the precise changes that lead to an increased risk of SLE are also not clear.
Now, Raj, Rai et al. have determined the genetic sequences of over 700 people with SLE and over 500 healthy individuals and looked for differences that influence susceptibility to the disease. The vast majority of differences were discovered in stretches of DNA that regulate the expression of nearby genes, rather than in DNA that encodes the structures of proteins. Notably, extensive differences were found in a region of the human genome that regulates the production of proteins called Human Leukocyte Antigen class II molecules; which are known to play a critical role in activating the immune system. Raj, Rai et al. found that slight changes to the regulatory DNA sequences resulted in an overabundance of these proteins, which led to a hyperactive immune system that is strongly associated with SLE.
Future studies could now ask if the changes to the regulatory DNA sequences highlighted by Raj, Rai et al. increase susceptibility to other autoimmune disorders as well. It may also be possible to use the increased understanding of how the immune system is regulated to develop new ways to minimize the rejection of organ transplants.