Shared and distinct genetic risk factors for childhood-onset and adult-onset asthma: genome-wide and transcriptome-wide studies

Lancet Respir Med. 2019 Jun;7(6):509-522. doi: 10.1016/S2213-2600(19)30055-4. Epub 2019 Apr 27.


Background: Childhood-onset and adult-onset asthma differ with respect to severity and comorbidities. Whether they also differ with respect to genetic risk factors has not been previously investigated in large samples. The goals of this study were to identify shared and distinct genetic risk loci for childhood-onset and adult-onset asthma, and to identify the genes that might mediate the effects of associated variation.

Methods: We did genome-wide and transcriptome-wide studies, using data from the UK Biobank, in individuals with asthma, including adults with childhood-onset asthma (onset before 12 years of age), adults with adult-onset asthma (onset between 26 and 65 years of age), and adults without asthma (controls; aged older than 38 years). We did genome-wide association studies (GWAS) for childhood-onset asthma and adult-onset asthma each compared with shared controls, and for age of asthma onset in all asthma cases, with a genome-wide significance threshold of p<5 × 10-8. Enrichment studies determined the tissues in which genes at GWAS loci were most highly expressed, and PrediXcan, a transcriptome-wide gene-based test, was used to identify candidate risk genes.

Findings: Of 376 358 British white individuals from the UK Biobank, we included 37 846 with self-reports of doctor-diagnosed asthma: 9433 adults with childhood-onset asthma; 21 564 adults with adult-onset asthma; and an additional 6849 young adults with asthma with onset between 12 and 25 years of age. For the first and second GWAS analyses, 318 237 individuals older than 38 years without asthma were used as controls. We detected 61 independent asthma loci: 23 were childhood-onset specific, one was adult-onset specific, and 37 were shared. 19 loci were associated with age of asthma onset. The most significant asthma-associated locus was at 17q12 (odds ratio 1·406, 95% CI 1·365-1·448; p=1·45 × 10-111) in the childhood-onset GWAS. Genes at the childhood onset-specific loci were most highly expressed in skin, blood, and small intestine; genes at the adult onset-specific loci were most highly expressed in lung, blood, small intestine, and spleen. PrediXcan identified 113 unique candidate genes at 22 of the 61 GWAS loci. Single-nucleotide polymorphism-based heritability estimates were more than three times larger for childhood-onset asthma (0·327) than for adult-onset disease (0·098). The onset of disease in childhood was associated with additional genes with relatively large effect sizes, with the largest odds ratio observed at the FLG locus at 1q21.3 (1·970, 95% CI 1·823-2·129).

Interpretation: Genetic risk factors for adult-onset asthma are largely a subset of the genetic risk for childhood-onset asthma but with overall smaller effects, suggesting a greater role for non-genetic risk factors in adult-onset asthma. Combined with gene expression and tissue enrichment patterns, we suggest that the establishment of disease in children is driven more by dysregulated allergy and epithelial barrier function genes, whereas the cause of adult-onset asthma is more lung-centred and environmentally determined, but with immune-mediated mechanisms driving disease progression in both children and adults.

Funding: US National Institutes of Health.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Age of Onset*
  • Aged
  • Asthma / genetics*
  • Case-Control Studies
  • Child
  • Female
  • Filaggrin Proteins
  • Genetic Loci
  • Genetic Predisposition to Disease / genetics*
  • Genome-Wide Association Study
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Polymorphism, Single Nucleotide / genetics
  • Risk Factors
  • Transcriptome
  • White People / genetics