Modeling the enigma of complex disease etiology

J Transl Med. 2023 Feb 25;21(1):148. doi: 10.1186/s12967-023-03987-x.


Background: Complex diseases often present as a diagnosis riddle, further complicated by the combination of multiple phenotypes and diseases as features of other diseases. With the aim of enhancing the determination of key etiological factors, we developed and tested a complex disease model that encompasses diverse factors that in combination result in complex diseases. This model was developed to address the challenges of classifying complex diseases given the evolving nature of understanding of disease and interaction and contributions of genetic, environmental, and social factors.

Methods: Here we present a new approach for modeling complex diseases that integrates the multiple contributing genetic, epigenetic, environmental, host and social pathogenic effects causing disease. The model was developed to provide a guide for capturing diverse mechanisms of complex diseases. Assessment of disease drivers for asthma, diabetes and fetal alcohol syndrome tested the model.

Results: We provide a detailed rationale for a model representing the classification of complex disease using three test conditions of asthma, diabetes and fetal alcohol syndrome. Model assessment resulted in the reassessment of the three complex disease classifications and identified driving factors, thus improving the model. The model is robust and flexible to capture new information as the understanding of complex disease improves.

Conclusions: The Human Disease Ontology's Complex Disease model offers a mechanism for defining more accurate disease classification as a tool for more precise clinical diagnosis. This broader representation of complex disease, therefore, has implications for clinicians and researchers who are tasked with creating evidence-based and consensus-based recommendations and for public health tracking of complex disease. The new model facilitates the comparison of etiological factors between complex, common and rare diseases and is available at the Human Disease Ontology website.

Keywords: Asthma; Diabetes; Disease etiology; Environmental drivers; Fetal alcohol syndrome; Genetics; Pathophysiology.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Asthma*
  • Causality
  • Diabetes Mellitus*
  • Female
  • Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders*
  • Humans
  • Pregnancy