Background: Melanocortin 4 receptor (MC4R) deficiency, caused by mutations in MC4R, is the most common cause of monogenic forms of obesity. However, these mutations have often been identified in small-scale, case-focused studies. Here, we assess the penetrance of previously reported MC4R mutations at a population level. Furthermore, we examine why some carriers of pathogenic mutations remain of normal weight, to gain insight into the mechanisms that control body weight.
Methods and findings: We identified 59 known obesity-increasing mutations in MC4R from the Human Gene Mutation Database (HGMD) and Clinvar. We assessed their penetrance and effect on obesity (body mass index [BMI] ≥ 30 kg/m2) in >450,000 individuals (age 40-69 years) of the UK Biobank, a population-based cohort study. Of these 59 mutations, only 11 had moderate-to-high penetrance and increased the odds of obesity by more than 2-fold. We subsequently focused on these 11 mutations and examined differences between carriers of normal weight and carriers with obesity. Twenty-eight of the 182 carriers of these 11 mutations were of normal weight. Body composition of carriers of normal weight was similar to noncarriers of normal weight, whereas among individuals with obesity, carriers had a somewhat higher BMI than noncarriers (1.44 ± 0.07 standard deviation scores [SDSs] ± standard error [SE] versus 1.29 ± 0.001, P = 0.03), because of greater lean mass (1.44 ± 0.09 versus 1.15 ± 0.002, P = 0.002). Carriers of normal weight more often reported that, already at age 10 years, their body size was below average or average (72%) compared with carriers with obesity (48%) (P = 0.01). To assess the polygenic contribution to body weight in carriers of normal weight and carriers with obesity, we calculated a genome-wide polygenic risk score for BMI (PRSBMI). The PRSBMI of carriers of normal weight (PRSBMI = -0.64 ± 0.18) was significantly lower than of carriers with obesity (0.40 ± 0.11; P = 1.7 × 10-6), and tended to be lower than that of noncarriers of normal weight (-0.29 ± 0.003; P = 0.05). Among carriers, those with a low PRSBMI (bottom quartile) have an approximately 5-kg/m2 lower BMI (approximately 14 kg of body weight for a 1.7-m-tall person) than those with a high PRS (top quartile). Because the UK Biobank population is healthier than the general population in the United Kingdom, penetrance may have been somewhat underestimated.
Conclusions: We showed that large-scale data are needed to validate the impact of mutations observed in small-scale and case-focused studies. Furthermore, we observed that despite the key role of MC4R in obesity, the effects of pathogenic MC4R mutations may be countered, at least in part, by a low polygenic risk potentially representing other innate mechanisms implicated in body weight regulation.