Exome and whole-genome sequencing are becoming increasingly routine approaches in Mendelian disease diagnosis. Despite their success, the current diagnostic rate for genomic analyses across a variety of rare diseases is approximately 25 to 50%. We explore the utility of transcriptome sequencing [RNA sequencing (RNA-seq)] as a complementary diagnostic tool in a cohort of 50 patients with genetically undiagnosed rare muscle disorders. We describe an integrated approach to analyze patient muscle RNA-seq, leveraging an analysis framework focused on the detection of transcript-level changes that are unique to the patient compared to more than 180 control skeletal muscle samples. We demonstrate the power of RNA-seq to validate candidate splice-disrupting mutations and to identify splice-altering variants in both exonic and deep intronic regions, yielding an overall diagnosis rate of 35%. We also report the discovery of a highly recurrent de novo intronic mutation in COL6A1 that results in a dominantly acting splice-gain event, disrupting the critical glycine repeat motif of the triple helical domain. We identify this pathogenic variant in a total of 27 genetically unsolved patients in an external collagen VI-like dystrophy cohort, thus explaining approximately 25% of patients clinically suggestive of having collagen VI dystrophy in whom prior genetic analysis is negative. Overall, this study represents a large systematic application of transcriptome sequencing to rare disease diagnosis and highlights its utility for the detection and interpretation of variants missed by current standard diagnostic approaches.
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