Diabetic retinopathy (DR) is a common clinical expression of diabetes mellitus-induced vasculopathy and is a major cause of vision loss. Significant gaps remain in our understanding of the molecular pathoetiology of DR, and it is hoped that human genetic approaches can reveal novel targets especially since DR is a heritable trait. Previous studies have focused on genetic risk factors of DR but their results have been mixed. In this study, we hypothesized that the use of the extreme phenotype design will increase the power of a genomewide search for "protective" genetic variants. We enrolled a small yet atypical cohort of 43 diabetics who did not develop DR a decade or more after diagnosis (cases), and 64 diabetics with DR (controls), all of similar ethnic background (Saudi). Whole-exome sequencing of the entire cohort was followed by statistical analysis employing combined multivariate and collapsing methods at the gene level, to identify genes that are enriched for rare variants in cases vs.
Controls: Three genes (NME3, LOC728699, and FASTK) reached gene-based genome-wide significance at the 10(-08) threshold (p value = 1.55 × 10(-10), 6.23 × 10(-10), 3.21 × 10(-08), respectively). Our results reveal novel candidate genes whose increased rare variant burden appears to protect against DR, thus highlighting them as attractive candidate targets, if replicated by future studies, for the treatment and prevention of DR. Extreme phenotype design when implemented in sequencing-based genome-wide case-control studies has the potential to reveal novel candidates with a smaller cohort size compared to standard study designs.