Telomere length and risk of idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease: a mendelian randomisation study

Lancet Respir Med. 2021 Mar;9(3):285-294. doi: 10.1016/S2213-2600(20)30364-7. Epub 2020 Nov 13.


Background: Idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis (IPF) is a fatal lung disease accounting for 1% of UK deaths. In the familial form of pulmonary fibrosis, causal genes have been identified in about 30% of cases, and a majority of these causal genes are associated with telomere maintenance. Prematurely shortened leukocyte telomere length is associated with IPF and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), a disease with similar demographics and shared risk factors. Using mendelian randomisation, we investigated evidence supporting a causal role for short telomeres in IPF and COPD.

Methods: Mendelian randomisation inference of telomere length causality was done for IPF (up to 1369 cases) and COPD (13 538 cases) against 435 866 controls of European ancestry in UK Biobank. Polygenic risk scores were calculated and two-sample mendelian randomisation analyses were done using seven genetic variants previously associated with telomere length, with replication analysis in an IPF cohort (2668 cases vs 8591 controls) and COPD cohort (15 256 cases vs 47 936 controls).

Findings: In the UK Biobank, a genetically instrumented one-SD shorter telomere length was associated with higher odds of IPF (odds ratio [OR] 4·19, 95% CI 2·33-7·55; p=0·0031) but not COPD (1·07, 0·88-1·30; p=0·51). Similarly, an association was found in the IPF replication cohort (12·3, 5·05-30·1; p=0·0015) and not in the COPD replication cohort (1·04, 0·71-1·53; p=0·83). Meta-analysis of the two-sample mendelian randomisation results provided evidence inferring that shorter telomeres cause IPF (5·81 higher odds of IPF, 95% CI 3·56-9·50; p=2·19 × 10-12). There was no evidence to infer that telomere length caused COPD (OR 1·07, 95% CI 0·90-1·27; p=0·46).

Interpretation: Cellular senescence is hypothesised as a major driving force in IPF and COPD; telomere shortening might be a contributory factor in IPF, suggesting divergent mechanisms in COPD. Defining a key role for telomere shortening enables greater focus in telomere-related diagnostics, treatments, and the search for a cure in IPF. Investigation of therapies that improve telomere length is warranted.

Funding: Medical Research Council.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Case-Control Studies
  • Causality
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis / epidemiology
  • Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis / genetics*
  • Male
  • Mendelian Randomization Analysis
  • Middle Aged
  • Pulmonary Disease, Chronic Obstructive / epidemiology
  • Pulmonary Disease, Chronic Obstructive / genetics*
  • Risk Factors
  • Telomere Shortening / genetics*