Many genetic variants affect complex traits through gene expression, which can be exploited to boost statistical power and enhance interpretation in genome-wide association studies (GWASs) as demonstrated by the transcriptome-wide association study (TWAS) approach. Furthermore, due to polygenic inheritance, a complex trait is often affected by multiple genes with similar functions as annotated in gene pathways. Here, we extend TWAS from gene-based analysis to pathway-based analysis: we integrate public pathway collections, expression quantitative trait locus (eQTL) data and GWAS summary association statistics (or GWAS individual-level data) to identify gene pathways associated with complex traits. The basic idea is to weight the SNPs of the genes in a pathway based on their estimated cis-effects on gene expression, then adaptively test for association of the pathway with a GWAS trait by effectively aggregating possibly weak association signals across the genes in the pathway. The P values can be calculated analytically and thus fast. We applied our proposed test with the KEGG and GO pathways to two schizophrenia (SCZ) GWAS summary association data sets, denoted by SCZ1 and SCZ2 with about 20,000 and 150,000 subjects, respectively. Most of the significant pathways identified by analyzing the SCZ1 data were reproduced by the SCZ2 data. Importantly, we identified 15 novel pathways associated with SCZ, such as GABA receptor complex (GO:1902710), which could not be uncovered by the standard single SNP-based analysis or gene-based TWAS. The newly identified pathways may help us gain insights into the biological mechanism underlying SCZ. Our results showcase the power of incorporating gene expression information and gene functional annotations into pathway-based association testing for GWAS.
Keywords: TWAS; aSPU; aSPUpath; aSPUpath2; gene expression.
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