Genetically Determined Chronic Low-Grade Inflammation and Hundreds of Health Outcomes in the UK Biobank and the FinnGen Population: A Phenome-Wide Mendelian Randomization Study

Front Immunol. 2021 Jul 27:12:720876. doi: 10.3389/fimmu.2021.720876. eCollection 2021.


Background: C-reactive protein (CRP) has been used as a biomarker of chronic low-grade inflammation in observational studies. We aimed to determine whether genetically determined CRP was associated with hundreds of human phenotypes to guide anti-inflammatory interventions.

Methods: We used individual data from the UK Biobank to perform a phenome-wide two-stage least squares (2SLS) Mendelian randomization (MR) analysis for CRP with 879 diseases. Summary-level data from the FinnGen consortium were utilized to perform phenome-wide two-sample MR analysis on 821 phenotypes. Systematic two-sample MR methods included MR-IVW, MR-WME, MR-Mod, and MR-PRESSO as sensitivity analyses combined with multivariable MR to identify robust associations. Genetic correlation analysis was applied to identify shared genetic risks.

Results: We found genetically determined CRP was robustly associated with 15 diseases in the UK Biobank and 11 diseases in the FinnGen population (P < 0.05 for all MR analyses). CRP was positively associated with tongue cancer, bronchitis, hydronephrosis, and acute pancreatitis and negatively associated with colorectal cancer, colon cancer, cerebral ischemia, electrolyte imbalance, Parkinson's disease, epilepsy, anemia of chronic disease, encephalitis, psychophysical visual disturbances, and aseptic necrosis of bone in the UK Biobank. There were positive associations with impetigo, vascular dementia, bipolar disorders, hypercholesterolemia, vertigo, and neurological diseases, and negative correlations with degenerative macular diseases, metatarsalgia, interstitial lung disease, and idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, and others. in the FinnGen population. The electrolyte imbalance and anemia of chronic disease in UK Biobank and hypercholesterolemia and neurological diseases in FinnGen pass the FDR corrections. Neurological diseases and bipolar disorders also presented positive genetic correlations with CRP. We found no overlapping causal associations between the populations. Previous causal evidence also failed to support these associations (except for bipolar disorders).

Conclusions: Genetically determined CRP was robustly associated with several diseases in the UK Biobank and the FinnGen population, but could not be replicated, suggesting heterogeneous and non-repeatable effects of CRP across populations. This implies that interventions at CRP are unlikely to result in decreased risk for most human diseases in the general population but may benefit specific high-risk populations. The limited causal evidence and potential double-sided effects remind us to be cautious about CRP interventions.

Keywords: C-reactive protein; Mendelian randomization; causality; inflammation; phenome-wide association study (PheWAS).

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Biomarkers
  • C-Reactive Protein
  • Chronic Disease
  • Female
  • Genetic Association Studies
  • Genetic Predisposition to Disease*
  • Humans
  • Inflammation / diagnosis
  • Inflammation / epidemiology*
  • Inflammation / etiology*
  • Male
  • Mendelian Randomization Analysis
  • Patient Outcome Assessment
  • Phenotype*
  • Population Surveillance
  • Proteome
  • Proteomics / methods
  • United Kingdom / epidemiology


  • Biomarkers
  • Proteome
  • C-Reactive Protein