Complex diseases; can we really “find the genes”?

Many breeds have been pinning their hopes on finding the genetic mutations responsible for diseases and health issues with the expectation that breeders will be able to test their way out of problems.

In some breeds, we have been “fortunate” to be able to identify so-called simple mutations from which DNA tests have been developed. In theory, these enable breeders to make informed decisions before breeding from a dog and bitch so that no “affected” puppies are born. It is, of course, important that we know how these single genetic mutatioons directly correlate with the clinical manifestation of the disease. There is also the potential unintended consequence of a reduction in overall genetic diversity in these breeds which may result from removing Affected (and sometimes, Carriers) from the breeding population.

I’ve written before about a couple of examples where “simple” recessive mutations may, in fact, subsequently turn out not to be so simple. One example is Cord1 PRA in Miniature Dachshunds where we now know there is a second mutation (MAP9) which influences the age of onset of blindness. This second mutation helps explain why some Cord1 Affected dogs don’t suffer retinal degeneration until old age (if at all). The other example is the POMC mutation which was associated with obesity in Labradors. The mutation is also found in Flatcoated Retrievers, but this breed is not noted for having an issue with obesity.

In the case of so-called complex diseases (e.g. Hip Dysplasia, Epilepsy, BOAS) there has been an assumption that multiple genes are involved in these conditions as well as environmental factors.

The search for simple and complex genetic explanations for canine diseases has been accelerated by the development of Genome Wide Association Studies (GWAS). These are large-scale investigations of genetic disease that aim to identify genetic variants scattered throughout the whole canine genome. The canine genome is a sequence of 2.4 billion letters of DNA (G, A, C and T), so the scale of these studies is truly enormous and requires massive computing power. In human genetic research, the number and scale of GWAS have been growing year by year. In 2016, of more than 400 published studies, around 50 involved studying the genomes of samples of more than 100,000 people. A similar situation has occurred in dogs. Last year, a team from Cornell University published a canine GWAS paper based on a sample of more than 4200 dogs from 150 breeds as well as mixed breeds. They tracked down two loci linked to Elbow Dysplasia and one for Hip Dysplasia. They also identified loci associated with epilepsy and lymphoma.

There has, however, been some debate about the extent to which GWAS in humans has actually led to useful clinical applications. For example, they may not fully explain the genetic familial risk of common diseases and there is a small size effect for many of the identified associations. They have also proved to be of limited value in predicting disease risk. All these shortcomings, of course, would mitigate against GWAS being of much practical use to dog breeders.

A new omnigenic model

A paper published in the journal Cell in June this year adds further challenge to the idea that there are relatively simple, causal, links between genetic variation and disease. In their paper, geneticists Boyle, Li and Pritchard from Stanford University suggest that many genetic variants identified by GWAS have no specific biological relevance to diseases. Their view is that common illnesses could, in fact, be linked to hundreds of thousands of DNA variants. Their conclusion is that, for complex traits, association signals from a GWAS tend to be spread across the whole genome, including near many genes without any obvious connection to the disease. They also state that most heritability can be explained by effects on genes outside core pathways. They called this an “omnigenic model” whereby most genes matter for most things!

There’s been this notion that for every gene that’s involved in a trait, there’d be a story connecting that gene to the trait,” says Pritchard. But he thinks that’s only partly true because genes don’t work in isolation. They influence each other in networks so, if there is a variant in one gene, it could well change a whole gene network. All this suggests that the search for simple genetic causes of complex diseases will continue to be challenging and breeders are unlikely to have new DNA tests for these conditions anytime soon. Of course, GWAS may well continue to help identify simple recessive mutations and it is important to remember that the paper is critical of the value of GWAS in human studies where the population structures are likely to be rather different to pedigree dogs with their closed gene pools and high levels of inbreeding.

I recently saw a comment by Carol Beuchat (Institute of Canine Biology) that 70% of genetic disorders in dogs are caused by recessive mutations. We also need to know the extent to which these have an impact on canine welfare as many of them could be relatively trivial. Developing yet more DNA tests for some of these would actually make life more difficult for breeders. Given that many of the high welfare-impact diseases are in the remaining 30% of complex conditions, it’s going to be virtually impossible to “breed away” from the “bad genes”.

Hope for the future

The AHT’s “Give a dog a Genome” project is a current example of Whole Genome Sequencing (WGS) which has the potential to avoid some of the shortcomings of non-sequencing GWAS. Here, by sequencing the genomes of different breeds, the AHT hopes to identify the variations that exist within the canine genome. Having built a database of “neutral variants” from healthy dogs, the genomes of dogs affected by particular diseases can be compared. The different variants between healthy and unhealthy dogs potentially lead to the identification of the associated disease mutation.

The AHT can already claim some success for their WGS work; on their website, they showcase the development of the DNA tests for cerebellar ataxia in Hungarian Vizslas and primary open angle glaucoma in the PBGV. The Vizsla genome sequence can now be used as a control sequence in future studies of inherited diseases in other breeds. With more than 70 breeds participating in the Give a dog a Genome project, the AHT expects to see many more useful and practical developments like those in the Vizsla and PBGV.

I’m sure all the breeds who are participating in the GDG project will recognise the scale and complexity of this project. I hope they see it as a longer-term opportunity to address health issues. In the meantime, they need to look for and implement other strategies that address the root causes of disease in pedigree dogs; closed stud books and high levels of inbreeding.


[There’s a presentation – pdf- by Boyle, Li and Pritchard here]
















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