Influence of tissue context on gene prioritization for predicted transcriptome-wide association studies

Pac Symp Biocomput. 2019;24:296-307.


Transcriptome-wide association studies (TWAS) have recently gained great attention due to their ability to prioritize complex trait-associated genes and promote potential therapeutics development for complex human diseases. TWAS integrates genotypic data with expression quantitative trait loci (eQTLs) to predict genetically regulated gene expression components and associates predictions with a trait of interest. As such, TWAS can prioritize genes whose differential expressions contribute to the trait of interest and provide mechanistic explanation of complex trait(s). Tissue-specific eQTL information grants TWAS the ability to perform association analysis on tissues whose gene expression profiles are otherwise hard to obtain, such as liver and heart. However, as eQTLs are tissue context-dependent, whether and how the tissue-specificity of eQTLs influences TWAS gene prioritization has not been fully investigated. In this study, we addressed this question by adopting two distinct TWAS methods, PrediXcan and UTMOST, which assume single tissue and integrative tissue effects of eQTLs, respectively. Thirty-eight baseline laboratory traits in 4,360 antiretroviral treatment-naïve individuals from the AIDS Clinical Trials Group (ACTG) studies comprised the input dataset for TWAS. We performed TWAS in a tissue-specific manner and obtained a total of 430 significant gene-trait associations (q-value < 0.05) across multiple tissues. Single tissue-based analysis by PrediXcan contributed 116 of the 430 associations including 64 unique gene-trait pairs in 28 tissues. Integrative tissue-based analysis by UTMOST found the other 314 significant associations that include 50 unique gene-trait pairs across all 44 tissues. Both analyses were able to replicate some associations identified in past variant-based genome-wide association studies (GWAS), such as high-density lipoprotein (HDL) and CETP (PrediXcan, q-value = 3.2e-16). Both analyses also identified novel associations. Moreover, single tissue-based and integrative tissuebased analysis shared 11 of 103 unique gene-trait pairs, for example, PSRC1-low-density lipoprotein (PrediXcan's lowest q-value = 8.5e-06; UTMOST's lowest q-value = 1.8e-05). This study suggests that single tissue-based analysis may have performed better at discovering gene-trait associations when combining results from all tissues. Integrative tissue-based analysis was better at prioritizing genes in multiple tissues and in trait-related tissue. Additional exploration is needed to confirm this conclusion. Finally, although single tissue-based and integrative tissue-based analysis shared significant novel discoveries, tissue context-dependency of eQTLs impacted TWAS gene prioritization. This study provides preliminary data to support continued work on tissue contextdependency of eQTL studies and TWAS.

Publication types

  • Clinical Trial
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Anti-HIV Agents / therapeutic use
  • Computational Biology
  • Gene Expression Profiling / methods
  • Gene Expression Profiling / statistics & numerical data*
  • Genetic Predisposition to Disease
  • Genome-Wide Association Study / methods
  • Genome-Wide Association Study / statistics & numerical data*
  • Genotype
  • HIV Infections / drug therapy
  • HIV Infections / genetics
  • Humans
  • Organ Specificity / genetics*
  • Pharmacogenomic Variants
  • Polymorphism, Single Nucleotide
  • Quantitative Trait Loci*
  • Transcriptome*


  • Anti-HIV Agents

Grant support