Systemic lupus erythematosus is a complex and potentially fatal autoimmune disease, characterized by autoantibody production and multi-organ damage. By a genome-wide association study (320 patients and 1,500 controls) and subsequent replication altogether involving a total of 3,300 Asian SLE patients from Hong Kong, Mainland China, and Thailand, as well as 4,200 ethnically and geographically matched controls, genetic variants in ETS1 and WDFY4 were found to be associated with SLE (ETS1: rs1128334, P = 2.33×10−11, OR = 1.29; WDFY4: rs7097397, P = 8.15×10−12, OR = 1.30). ETS1 encodes for a transcription factor known to be involved in a wide range of immune functions, including Th17 cell development and terminal differentiation of B lymphocytes. SNP rs1128334 is located in the 3′-UTR of ETS1, and allelic expression analysis from peripheral blood mononuclear cells showed significantly lower expression level from the risk allele. WDFY4 is a conserved protein with unknown function, but is predominantly expressed in primary and secondary immune tissues, and rs7097397 in WDFY4 changes an arginine residue to glutamine (R1816Q) in this protein. Our study also confirmed association of the HLA locus, STAT4, TNFSF4, BLK, BANK1, IRF5, and TNFAIP3 with SLE in Asians. These new genetic findings may help us to gain a better understanding of the disease and the functions of the genes involved.
In this study, we first conducted a genome-wide association study in a Hong Kong Chinese population, followed by replication in three other cohorts from Mainland China and a cohort from Thailand, which totaled 3,300 Asian patients and 4,200 ethnically and geographically matched controls. We identified novel variants in ETS1 and WDFY4 associated with SLE with genome-wide significance and confirmed the association of HLA locus, STAT4, BLK, IRF5, BANK1, TNFSF, and IRF5 with the disease. ETS1 encodes a critical transcription factor involved in Th17 and B cell development. Allelic expression study showed a significantly lower expression of ETS1 from the risk allele, which provided functional support to the genetic findings. WDFY4 is a huge protein with unknown function but is predominantly expressed in primary and secondary immune tissues, and a nonsynonymous SNP in this gene was found to be highly associated with SLE susceptibility. Our findings shed new light on the function of these genes as well as the mechanism of this devastating disease.