Heidi L. Rehm, PhD, FACMG
A new era in the interpretation of human genomic variation

Just five years ago, the world of variant interpretation was very different. There was no standard terminology for variant classification, and laboratories were using many different terms as ambiguous as “mutation” and “polymorphism” to convey pathogenicity, or lack thereof, and a plethora of qualifiers such as “possibly,” “probably,” and “likely” to convey degrees of uncertainty. The only terminology broadly agreed on was “variant of uncertain significance” (VUS). Furthermore, there was substantial variability in how laboratories evaluated evidence. A single publication in a peer-reviewed journal could be cited as justification for declaring pathogenicity, even though on many occasions little evidence to support that assertion was present in the publication beyond, for example, a non-statistically-significant observation in an affected individual. This was perpetuated by the routine deposition of “deleterious mutations” in the Human Gene Mutation Database,1 often without strong evidence supporting these claims. Similarly, exemplar variants included in the Online Mendelian Inheritance in Man database2 to support gene–disease relationships were assumed to be pathogenic.

Ben Kleinstiver, PhD
Engineered CRISPR-Cas12a variants with increased activities and improved targeting ranges for gene, epigenetic and base editing

 2019 Feb 11. doi: 10.1038/s41587-018-0011-0.

Broad use of CRISPR-Cas12a (formerly Cpf1) nucleases1 has been hindered by the requirement for an extended TTTV protospacer adjacent motif (PAM)2. To address this limitation, we engineered an enhanced Acidaminococcus sp. Cas12a variant (enAsCas12a) that has a substantially expanded targeting range, enabling targeting of many previously inaccessible PAMs. On average, enAsCas12a exhibits a twofold higher genome editing activity on sites with canonical TTTV PAMs compared to wild-type AsCas12a, and we successfully grafted a subset of mutations from enAsCas12a onto other previously described AsCas12a variants3 to enhance their activities. enAsCas12a improves the efficiency of multiplex gene editing, endogenous gene activation and C-to-T base editing, and we engineered a high-fidelity version of enAsCas12a (enAsCas12a-HF1) to reduce off-target effects. Both enAsCas12a and enAsCas12a-HF1 function in HEK293T and primary human T cells when delivered as ribonucleoprotein (RNP) complexes. Collectively, enAsCas12a provides an optimized version of Cas12a that should enable wider application of Cas12a enzymes for gene and epigenetic editing.

Amit V. Khera, MD, MSc
Genome-wide polygenic scores for common diseases identify individuals with risk equivalent to monogenic mutations

Nature Genetics. volume 50pages1219–1224 (2018)

A key public health need is to identify individuals at high risk for a given disease to enable enhanced screening or preventive therapies. Because most common diseases have a genetic component, one important approach is to stratify individuals based on inherited DNA variation1. Proposed clinical applications have largely focused on finding carriers of rare monogenic mutations at several-fold increased risk. Although most disease risk is polygenic in nature2,3,4,5, it has not yet been possible to use polygenic predictors to identify individuals at risk comparable to monogenic mutations. Here, we develop and validate genome-wide polygenic scores for five common diseases. The approach identifies 8.0, 6.1, 3.5, 3.2, and 1.5% of the population at greater than threefold increased risk for coronary artery disease, atrial fibrillation, type 2 diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease, and breast cancer, respectively. For coronary artery disease, this prevalence is 20-fold higher than the carrier frequency of rare monogenic mutations conferring comparable risk6. We propose that it is time to contemplate the inclusion of polygenic risk prediction in clinical care, and discuss relevant issues.

Jeremiah Scharf, MD, PhD, Benjamin Neale, PhD
Rare Copy Number Variants in NRXN1 and CNTN6 Increase Risk for Tourette Syndrome

Tourette syndrome (TS) is a model neuropsychiatric disorder thought to arise from abnormal development and/or maintenance of cortico-striato-thalamo-cortical circuits. TS is highly heritable, but its underlying genetic causes are still elusive, and no genome-wide significant loci have been discovered to date. We analyzed a European ancestry sample of 2,434 TS cases and 4,093 ancestry-matched controls for rare (< 1% frequency) copy-number variants (CNVs) using SNP microarray data. We observed an enrichment of global CNV burden that was prominent for large (> 1 Mb), singleton events (OR = 2.28, 95% CI [1.39–3.79], p = 1.23103) and known, pathogenic CNVs (OR = 3.03 [1.85–5.07], p = 1.5 3 105). We also identified two individual, genome-wide significant loci, each conferring a substantial increase in TS risk (NRXN1 deletions, OR = 20.3, 95% CI [2.6–156.2]; CNTN6 duplications, OR = 10.1, 95% CI [2.3–45.4]). Approximately 1% of TS cases carry one of these CNVs, indicating that rare structural variation contributes significantly to the genetic architecture of TS.

William Crowley, MD
SMCHD1 mutations associated with a rare muscular dystrophy can also cause isolated arhinia and Bosma arhinia microphthalmia syndrome

Nat Genet. 2017 May 26;49(6):969. PMID: 28546579.

Arhinia, or absence of the nose, is a rare malformation of unknown etiology that is often accompanied by ocular and reproductive defects. Sequencing of 40 people with arhinia revealed that 84% of probands harbor a missense mutation localized to a constrained region of SMCHD1 encompassing the ATPase domain. SMCHD1 mutations cause facioscapulohumeral muscular dystrophy type 2 (FSHD2) via a trans-acting loss-offunction epigenetic mechanism. We discovered shared mutations and comparable DNA hypomethylation patterning between these distinct disorders. CRISPR/Cas9-mediated alteration of smchd1 in zebrafish yielded arhinia-relevant phenotypes. Transcriptome and protein analyses in arhinia probands and controls showed no differences in SMCHD1 mRNA or protein abundance but revealed regulatory changes in genes and pathways associated with craniofacial patterning. Mutations in SMCHD1 thus contribute to distinct phenotypic spectra, from craniofacial malformation and reproductive disorders to muscular dystrophy, which we speculate to be consistent with oligogenic mechanisms resulting in pleiotropic outcomes.

James Gusella, PhD, Marcy E. MacDonald, PhD
Developmental alterations in Huntington’s disease neural cells and pharmacological rescue in cells and mice

Nat Neurosci. 2017 May;20(5):648-660. doi: 10.1038/nn.4532. Epub 2017 Mar 20. 

Neural cultures derived from Huntington’s disease (HD) patient-derived induced pluripotent stem cells were used for ‘omics’ analyses to identify mechanisms underlying neurodegeneration. RNA-seq analysis identified genes in glutamate and GABA signaling, axonal guidance and calcium influx whose expression was decreased in HD cultures. One-third of gene changes were in pathways regulating neuronal development and maturation. When mapped to stages of mouse striatal development, the profiles aligned with earlier embryonic stages of neuronal differentiation. We observed a strong correlation between HD-related histone marks, gene expression and unique peak profiles associated with dysregulated genes, suggesting a coordinated epigenetic program. Treatment with isoxazole-9, which targets key dysregulated pathways, led to amelioration of expanded polyglutamine repeat-associated phenotypes in neural cells and of cognitive impairment and synaptic pathology in HD model R6/2 mice. These data suggest that mutant huntingtin impairs neurodevelopmental pathways that could disrupt synaptic homeostasis and increase vulnerability to the pathologic consequence of expanded polyglutamine repeats over time.

Michael Talkowski, PhD, James Gusella, PhD
The genomic landscape of balanced cytogenetic abnormalities associated with human congenital anomalies

Nat Genet. 2017 Jan;49(1):36-45. doi: 10.1038/ng.3720. Epub 2016 Nov 14.

Despite the clinical significance of balanced chromosomal abnormalities (BCAs), their characterization has largely been restricted to cytogenetic resolution. We explored the landscape of BCAs at nucleotide resolution in 273 subjects with a spectrum of congenital anomalies. Whole-genome sequencing revised 93% of karyotypes and demonstrated complexity that was cryptic to karyotyping in 21% of BCAs, highlighting the limitations of conventional cytogenetic approaches. At least 33.9% of BCAs resulted in gene disruption that likely contributed to the developmental phenotype, 5.2% were associated with pathogenic genomic imbalances, and 7.3% disrupted topologically associated domains (TADs) encompassing known syndromic loci. Remarkably, BCA breakpoints in eight subjects altered a single TAD encompassing MEF2C, a known driver of 5q14.3 microdeletion syndrome, resulting in decreased MEF2C expression. We propose that sequence-level resolution dramatically improves prediction of clinical outcomes for balanced rearrangements and provides insight into new pathogenic mechanisms, such as altered regulation due to changes in chromosome topology.

Alexander Soukas, MD, PhD
An Ancient, Unified Mechanism for Metformin Growth Inhibition in C. elegans and Cancer

Cell. 2016 Dec167(7), p1705–1718.e13.

Metformin has utility in cancer prevention and treatment, though the mechanisms for these effects remain elusive. Through genetic screening in C. elegans , we uncover two metformin response elements: the nuclear pore complex (NPC) and acyl-CoA dehydrogenase family member-10 (ACAD10). We demonstrate that biguanides inhibit growth by inhibiting mitochondrial respiratory capacity, which restrains transit of the RagA-RagC GTPase heterodimer through the NPC. Nuclear exclusion renders RagC incapable of gaining the GDP-bound state necessary to stimulate mTORC1. Biguanideinduced inactivation of mTORC1 subsequently inhibits growth through transcriptional induction of ACAD10. This ancient metformin response pathway is conserved from worms to humans. Both restricted nuclear pore transit and upregulation of ACAD10 are required for biguanides to reduce viability in melanoma and pancreatic cancer cells, and to extend C. elegans  lifespan. This pathway provides a unified mechanism by which metformin kills cancer cells and extends lifespan, and illuminates potential cancer targets.

Roy H. Perlis, MD, MSc
Patient-specific models of microglia-mediated engulfment of synapses and neural progenitors

Mol Psychiatry. 2016 Dec 13. doi: 10.1038/mp.2016.220. [Epub ahead of print]

Engulfment of synapses and neural progenitor cells (NPCs) by microglia is critical for the development and maintenance of proper brain circuitry, and has been implicated in neurodevelopmental as well as neurodegenerative disease etiology. We have developed and validated models of these mechanisms by reprogramming microglia-like cells from peripheral blood mononuclear cells, and combining them with NPCs and neurons derived from induced pluripotent stem cells to create patient-specific cellular models of complement-dependent synaptic pruning and elimination of NPCs. The resulting microglia-like cells express appropriate markers and function as primary human microglia, while patient-matched macrophages differ markedly. As a demonstration of disease-relevant application, we studied the role of C4, recently implicated in schizophrenia, in engulfment of synaptic structures by human microglia. The ability to create complete patient-specific cellular models of critical microglial functions utilizing samples taken during a single clinical visit will extend the ability to model central nervous system disease while facilitating high-throughput screening.

Phil Hyoun Lee, PhD, Jordan W. Smoller, MD, ScD
Partitioning heritability analysis reveals a shared genetic basis of brain anatomy and schizophrenia

Mol Psychiatry. 2016 Dec;21(12):1680-1689. doi: 10.1038/mp.2016.164. Epub 2016 Oct 11.

Schizophrenia is a devastating neurodevelopmental disorder with a complex genetic etiology. Widespread cortical gray matter loss has been observed in patients and prodromal samples. However, it remains unresolved whether schizophrenia-associated cortical structure variations arise due to disease etiology or secondary to the illness. Here we address this question using a partitioning-based heritability analysis of genome-wide single-nucleotide polymorphism (SNP) and neuroimaging data from 1750 healthy individuals. We find that schizophrenia-associated genetic variants explain a significantly enriched proportion of trait heritability in eight brain phenotypes (false discovery rate=10%). In particular, intracranial volume and left superior frontal gyrus thickness exhibit significant and robust associations with schizophrenia genetic risk under varying SNP selection conditions. Cross-disorder comparison suggests that the neurogenetic architecture of schizophrenia-associated brain regions is, at least in part, shared with other psychiatric disorders. Our study highlights key neuroanatomical correlates of schizophrenia genetic risk in the general population. These may provide fundamental insights into the complex pathophysiology of the illness, and a potential link to neurocognitive deficits shaping the disorder.