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Variable set enrichment analysis in genome-wide association studies.

European Journal of Human Genetics 19(8):893 (2011) PMID 21427759 PMCID PMC3172928

Complex diseases such as hypertension are inherently multifactorial and involve many factors of mild-to-minute effect sizes. A genome-wide association study (GWAS) typically tests hundreds of thousands of single-nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs), and offers opportunity to evaluate aggregated effects of many genetic variants with effects that are too small to detect individually. The gene-set-enrichment analysis (GSEA) is a pathway-based approach that tests for such aggregated effects of genes that are linked by biological functions. A key step in GSEA is the summary statistic (gene score) used to measure the overall relevance of a gene based on all SNPs tested in the gene. Existing GSEA methods use maximum statistics sensitive to gene size and linkage equilibrium. We propose the approach of variable set enrichment analysis (VSEA) and study new gene score methods that are less dependent on gene size. The new method treats groups of variables (SNPs or other variants) as base units for summarizing gene scores and relies less on gene definition itself. The power of VSEA is analyzed by simulation studies modeling various scenarios of complex multiloci interactions. Results show that the new gene scores generally performed better, some substantially so, than existing GSEA extension to GWAS. The new methods are implemented in an R package and when applied to a real GWAS data set demonstrated its practical utility in a GWAS setting.

DOI: 10.1038/ejhg.2011.46