Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) is a chronic autoimmune disorder characterized by inflammation of multiple organ systems and dysregulated interferon responses. SLE is both genetically and phenotypically heterogeneous, greatly reducing the power of case-control studies in SLE. Elevated circulating interferon-alpha (IFN-α) is a stable, heritable trait in SLE, which has been implicated in primary disease pathogenesis. About 40-50% of patients have high IFN-α, and high levels correspond with clinical differences. To study genetic heterogeneity in SLE, we performed a case-case study comparing patients with high vs low IFN-α in over 1550 SLE cases, including genome-wide association study and replication cohorts. In meta-analysis, the top associations in European ancestry were protein kinase, cyclic GMP-dependent, type I (PRKG1) rs7897633 (P Meta =2.75 × 10-8) and purine nucleoside phosphorylase (PNP) rs1049564 (P Meta =1.24 × 10-7). We also found evidence for cross-ancestral background associations with the ankyrin repeat domain 44 (ANKRD44) and pleckstrin homology domain containing, family F member 2 gene (PLEKHF2) loci. These loci have not been previously identified in case-control SLE genetic studies. Bioinformatic analyses implicated these loci functionally in dendritic cells and natural killer cells, both of which are involved in IFN-α production in SLE. As case-control studies of heterogeneous diseases reach a limit of feasibility with respect to subject number and detectable effect size, the study of informative pathogenic sub-phenotypes becomes an attractive strategy for genetic discovery in complex disease.
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