Variation in cystic fibrosis (CF) phenotypes, including lung disease severity, age of onset of persistent Pseudomonas aeruginosa (P. aeruginosa) lung infection, and presence of meconium ileus (MI), has been partially explained by genome-wide association studies (GWASs). It is not expected that GWASs alone are sufficiently powered to uncover all heritable traits associated with CF phenotypic diversity. Therefore, we utilized gene expression association from lymphoblastoid cells lines from 754 p.Phe508del CF-affected homozygous individuals to identify genes and pathways. LPAR6, a G protein coupled receptor, associated with lung disease severity (false discovery rate q value = 0.0006). Additional pathway analyses, utilizing a stringent permutation-based approach, identified unique signals for all three phenotypes. Pathways associated with lung disease severity were annotated in three broad categories: (1) endomembrane function, containing p.Phe508del processing genes, providing evidence of the importance of p.Phe508del processing to explain lung phenotype variation; (2) HLA class I genes, extending previous GWAS findings in the HLA region; and (3) endoplasmic reticulum stress response genes. Expression pathways associated with lung disease were concordant for some endosome and HLA pathways, with pathways identified using GWAS associations from 1,978 CF-affected individuals. Pathways associated with age of onset of persistent P. aeruginosa infection were enriched for HLA class II genes, and those associated with MI were related to oxidative phosphorylation. Formal testing demonstrated that genes showing differential expression associated with lung disease severity were enriched for heritable genetic variation and expression quantitative traits. Gene expression provided a powerful tool to identify unrecognized heritable variation, complementing ongoing GWASs in this rare disease.
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