Genome-wide association studies (GWAS) have boosted our knowledge of genetic risk variants in autoimmune diseases (AIDs). Most risk variants are located within or near genes with immunological functions, and the majority is found to be non-coding, pointing towards a regulatory role. In this study, we performed a cis expression quantitative trait locus (eQTL) screen restricted to 353 AID associated risk variants selected from the GWAS catalog to investigate whether these single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) influence gene expression in thymus. Genotypes were obtained by Immunochip (Ichip) and tested against expression of surrounding genes (±1 Mb) in human thymic tissue (n = 42). We identified eight significant eQTLs located within seven genetic regions (FCRL3, RNASET2, C2orf74, NPIPB8, SIRPG, SYS1 and AJ006998.2) where the expression was associated with AID risk SNPs at a study-wide level of significance (P < 2.7 × 10−5). In NPIPB8 and AJ006998.2, the eQTL signals appeared to be thymus-specific. Furthermore, many AID risk SNPs from GWAS have been subsequently fine-mapped in recent Ichip projects, and fine-mapped AID SNPs overlapped with the thymic eQTLs within RNASET2 and SIRPG. Finally, in all the eQTL regions, except C2orf74, SNPs underlying the thymic eQTLs were predicted to interfere with transcription factors important in T cell development. Our study therefore reveals autoimmune risk variants that act as eQTLs in thymus, and suggest that thymic gene regulation may play a functional role at some AID risk loci.

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