Tissue specificity-aware TWAS (TSA-TWAS) framework identifies novel associations with metabolic, immunologic, and virologic traits in HIV-positive adults

PLoS Genet. 2021 Apr 26;17(4):e1009464. doi: 10.1371/journal.pgen.1009464. eCollection 2021 Apr.


As a type of relatively new methodology, the transcriptome-wide association study (TWAS) has gained interest due to capacity for gene-level association testing. However, the development of TWAS has outpaced statistical evaluation of TWAS gene prioritization performance. Current TWAS methods vary in underlying biological assumptions about tissue specificity of transcriptional regulatory mechanisms. In a previous study from our group, this may have affected whether TWAS methods better identified associations in single tissues versus multiple tissues. We therefore designed simulation analyses to examine how the interplay between particular TWAS methods and tissue specificity of gene expression affects power and type I error rates for gene prioritization. We found that cross-tissue identification of expression quantitative trait loci (eQTLs) improved TWAS power. Single-tissue TWAS (i.e., PrediXcan) had robust power to identify genes expressed in single tissues, but, often found significant associations in the wrong tissues as well (therefore had high false positive rates). Cross-tissue TWAS (i.e., UTMOST) had overall equal or greater power and controlled type I error rates for genes expressed in multiple tissues. Based on these simulation results, we applied a tissue specificity-aware TWAS (TSA-TWAS) analytic framework to look for gene-based associations with pre-treatment laboratory values from AIDS Clinical Trial Group (ACTG) studies. We replicated several proof-of-concept transcriptionally regulated gene-trait associations, including UGT1A1 (encoding bilirubin uridine diphosphate glucuronosyltransferase enzyme) and total bilirubin levels (p = 3.59×10-12), and CETP (cholesteryl ester transfer protein) with high-density lipoprotein cholesterol (p = 4.49×10-12). We also identified several novel genes associated with metabolic and virologic traits, as well as pleiotropic genes that linked plasma viral load, absolute basophil count, and/or triglyceride levels. By highlighting the advantages of different TWAS methods, our simulation study promotes a tissue specificity-aware TWAS analytic framework that revealed novel aspects of HIV-related traits.

Trial registration: ClinicalTrials.gov NCT00000919 NCT00013520 NCT00050895 NCT00118898 NCT00811954.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Computer Simulation
  • Gene Expression Regulation / genetics
  • Genetic Predisposition to Disease*
  • Genome-Wide Association Study*
  • Humans
  • Organ Specificity / genetics
  • Polymorphism, Single Nucleotide / genetics
  • Quantitative Trait Loci / genetics*
  • Transcriptome / genetics*

Associated data

  • ClinicalTrials.gov/NCT00000919
  • ClinicalTrials.gov/NCT00013520
  • ClinicalTrials.gov/NCT00050895
  • ClinicalTrials.gov/NCT00118898
  • ClinicalTrials.gov/NCT00811954

Grant support