A challenge in the post-GWAS era is to assign function to disease-associated variants. However, available resources do not include all tissues or environmental exposures that are relevant to all diseases. For example, exaggerated bronchoconstriction of airway smooth muscle cells (ASMCs) defines airway hyperresponsiveness (AHR), a cardinal feature of asthma. However, the contribution of ASMC to genetic and genomic studies has largely been overlooked. Our study aimed to address the gap in data availability from a critical tissue in genomic studies of asthma.
We developed a cell model of AHR to discover variants associated with transcriptional, epigenetic, and cellular responses to two AHR promoting cytokines, IL-13 and IL-17A, and performed a GWAS of bronchial responsiveness (BRI) in humans.
Our study revealed significant response differences between ASMCs from asthma cases and controls, including genes implicated in asthma susceptibility. We defined molecular quantitative trait loci (QTLs) for expression (eQTLs) and methylation (meQTLs), and cellular QTLs for contractility (coQTLs) and performed a GWAS of BRI in human subjects. Variants in asthma GWAS were significantly enriched for ASM QTLs and BRI-associated SNPs, and near genes enriched for ASM function, many with small P values that did not reach stringent thresholds of significance in GWAS.
Our study identified significant differences between ASMCs from asthma cases and controls, potentially reflecting trained tolerance in these cells, as well as a set of variants, overlooked in previous GWAS, which reflect the AHR component of asthma.