Vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF) is an angiogenic and neurotrophic factor, secreted by endothelial cells, known to impact various physiological and disease processes from cancer to cardiovascular disease and to be pharmacologically modifiable. We sought to identify novel loci associated with circulating VEGF levels through a genome-wide association meta-analysis combining data from European-ancestry individuals and using a dense variant map from 1000 genomes imputation panel. Six discovery cohorts including 13,312 samples were analyzed, followed by in-silico and de-novo replication studies including an additional 2,800 individuals. A total of 10 genome-wide significant variants were identified at 7 loci. Four were novel loci (5q14.3, 10q21.3, 16q24.2 and 18q22.3) and the leading variants at these loci were rs114694170 (MEF2C, P = 6.79x10-13), rs74506613 (JMJD1C, P = 1.17x10-19), rs4782371 (ZFPM1, P = 1.59x10-9) and rs2639990 (ZADH2, P = 1.72x10-8), respectively. We also identified two new independent variants (rs34528081, VEGFA, P = 1.52x10-18; rs7043199, VLDLR-AS1, P = 5.12x10-14) at the 3 previously identified loci and strengthened the evidence for the four previously identified SNPs (rs6921438, LOC100132354, P = 7.39x10-1467; rs1740073, C6orf223, P = 2.34x10-17; rs6993770, ZFPM2, P = 2.44x10-60; rs2375981, KCNV2, P = 1.48x10-100). These variants collectively explained up to 52% of the VEGF phenotypic variance. We explored biological links between genes in the associated loci using Ingenuity Pathway Analysis that emphasized their roles in embryonic development and function. Gene set enrichment analysis identified the ERK5 pathway as enriched in genes containing VEGF associated variants. eQTL analysis showed, in three of the identified regions, variants acting as both cis and trans eQTLs for multiple genes. Most of these genes, as well as some of those in the associated loci, were involved in platelet biogenesis and functionality, suggesting the importance of this process in regulation of VEGF levels. This work also provided new insights into the involvement of genes implicated in various angiogenesis related pathologies in determining circulating VEGF levels. The understanding of the molecular mechanisms by which the identified genes affect circulating VEGF levels could be important in the development of novel VEGF-related therapies for such diseases.
Vascular Endothelial Growth Factor (VEGF) is a protein with a fundamental role in development of vascular system. The protein, produced by many types of cells, is released in the blood. High levels of VEGF have been observed in different pathological conditions especially in cancer, cardiovascular, and inflammatory diseases. Therefore, identifying the genetic factors influencing VEGF levels is important for predicting and treating such pathologies. The number of genetic variants associated with VEGF levels has been limited. To identify new loci, we have performed a Genome Wide Association Study meta-analysis on a sample of more than 16,000 individuals from 10 cohorts, using a high-density genetic map. This analysis revealed 10 variants associated with VEGF circulating levels, 6 of these being novel associations. The 10 variants cumulatively explain more than 50% of the variability of VEGF serum levels. Our analyses have identified genes known to be involved in angiogenesis related diseases and genes implicated in platelet metabolism, suggesting the importance of links between this process and VEGF regulation. Overall, these data have improved our understanding of the genetic variation underlying circulating VEGF levels. This in turn could guide our response to the challenge posed by various VEGF-related pathologies.