The challenges, advantages and future of phenome-wide association studies

Immunology. 2014 Feb;141(2):157-65. doi: 10.1111/imm.12195.


Over the last decade, significant technological breakthroughs have revolutionized human genomic research in the form of genome-wide association studies (GWASs). GWASs have identified thousands of statistically significant genetic variants associated with hundreds of human conditions including many with immunological aetiologies (e.g. multiple sclerosis, ankylosing spondylitis and rheumatoid arthritis). Unfortunately, most GWASs fail to identify clinically significant associations. Identifying biologically significant variants by GWAS also presents a challenge. The GWAS is a phenotype-to-genotype approach. As a complementary/alternative approach to the GWAS, investigators have begun to exploit extensive electronic medical record systems to conduct a genotype-to-phenotype approach when studying human disease - specifically, the phenome-wide association study (PheWAS). Although the PheWAS approach is in its infancy, this method has already demonstrated its capacity to rediscover important genetic associations related to immunological diseases/conditions. Furthermore, PheWAS has the advantage of identifying genetic variants with pleiotropic properties. This is particularly relevant for HLA variants. For example, PheWAS results have demonstrated that the HLA-DRB1 variant associated with multiple sclerosis may also be associated with erythematous conditions including rosacea. Likewise, PheWAS has demonstrated that the HLA-B genotype is not only associated with spondylopathies, uveitis, and variability in platelet count, but may also play an important role in other conditions, such as mastoiditis. This review will discuss and compare general PheWAS methodologies, describe both the challenges and advantages of the PheWAS, and provide insight into the potential directions in which PheWAS may lead.

Keywords: electronic medical record; genome-wide association study; phenome-wide association study.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Genome-Wide Association Study*
  • Genotype
  • Humans
  • International Classification of Diseases
  • Phenotype*
  • Polymorphism, Single Nucleotide