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How many genes underlie the occurrence of common complex diseases in the population? Int J Epidemiol 34: 1129-1137

Author(s): Yang Q H, Khoury MJ, Friedman JM, Little J, Flanders WD

Abstract

Background Most common human diseases are due to complex interactions among multiple genetic variants and environmental risk factors. There is debate over whether variants of a relatively small number of genes, each with weak or modest individual effects, account for a large proportion of common diseases in the population, or whether a large number of rare variants with large effects underlie genetic susceptibility to these diseases. It is not clear how many genes are necessary to account for an appreciable population-attributable fraction of these diseases.

Methods In this analysis, we estimated the number of disease susceptibility genes needed to account for varying population attributable fractions of a common complex disease, taking into account the genotype prevalence, risk ratios for individual genes, and the model of gene–gene interactions (additive or multiplicative).

Results Very large numbers of rare genotypes (e.g. those with frequencies of 1 per 5000 or less) are needed to explain 50% of a common disease in the population, even if the individual risk ratios are large (RR = 10–20). On the other hand, only ∼20 genes are usually needed to explain 50% of the burden of a disease in the population if the predisposing genotypes are common (≥25%), even if the individual risk ratios are relatively small (RR = 1.2–1.5).

Conclusions Our results suggest that a limited number of disease susceptibility genes with common variants can explain a major proportion of common complex diseases in the population. Our findings should help focus the search for common genetic variants that provide the most important predispositions to complex human diseases.

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