Genetic Variation in WNT9B Increases Relapse Hazard in Multiple Sclerosis

Marijne Vandebergh, Till F M Andlauer, Yuan Zhou, Klara Mallants, Friederike Held, Lilian Aly, Bruce V Taylor, Bernhard Hemmer, Bénédicte Dubois, An Goris
Annals of Neurology 2021, 89 (5): 884-894

OBJECTIVE: Many multiple sclerosis (MS) genetic susceptibility variants have been identified, but understanding disease heterogeneity remains a key challenge. Relapses are a core feature of MS and a common primary outcome of clinical trials, with prevention of relapses benefiting patients immediately and potentially limiting long-term disability accrual. We aim to identify genetic variation associated with relapse hazard in MS by analyzing the largest study population to date.

METHODS: We performed a genomewide association study (GWAS) in a discovery cohort and investigated the genomewide significant variants in a replication cohort. Combining both cohorts, we captured a total of 2,231 relapses occurring before the start of any immunomodulatory treatment in 991 patients. For assessing time to relapse, we applied a survival analysis utilizing Cox proportional hazards models. We also investigated the association between MS genetic risk scores and relapse hazard and performed a gene ontology pathway analysis.

RESULTS: The low-frequency genetic variant rs11871306 within WNT9B reached genomewide significance in predicting relapse hazard and replicated (meta-analysis hazard ratio (HR) = 2.15, 95% confidence interval (CI) = 1.70-2.78, p = 2.07 × 10-10 ). A pathway analysis identified an association of the pathway "response to vitamin D" with relapse hazard (p = 4.33 × 10-6 ). The MS genetic risk scores, however, were not associated with relapse hazard.

INTERPRETATION: Genetic factors underlying disease heterogeneity differ from variants associated with MS susceptibility. Our findings imply that genetic variation within the Wnt signaling and vitamin D pathways contributes to differences in relapse occurrence. The present study highlights these cross-talking pathways as potential modulators of MS disease activity. ANN NEUROL 2021;89:884-894.

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