Paediatrics (RCH) - Theses

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    Investigating genomic and environmental risk factors and their interactions in juvenile idiopathic arthritis
    Chiaroni-Clarke, Rachel Carolyn ( 2017)
    Juvenile idiopathic arthritis (JIA) is a paediatric autoimmune disease arising from an abnormal immune response to self. It is the most common childhood rheumatic disease, with a prevalence of around 1 in 1000 Caucasian children. Disease prevalence is biased towards females, with around 2–3 females affected for every male. Due to the young age of onset, JIA can have a severe effect on a child’s growing skeleton and cause serious functional disability. And though onset is in childhood, the morbidity associated with JIA can be life-long as currently there is no cure for the disease, treatments are imperfect and preventative measures aren’t available – largely due to the limited understanding of disease pathogenesis. We hypothesised that genetic and environmental risk factors contribute individually and through interaction to cause JIA, and contribute to the sex bias in disease prevalence. The first aim of this study was to replicate the association of genetic variants that had previously been associated with JIA, in our independent sample. We confirmed the association of seven risk loci in our sample, six replicated for the first time. Our findings significantly strengthen the evidence that these loci harbour true JIA risk variants. The second aim of this study was to investigate whether autosomal genetic variants confer sex-specific risk for JIA. We established that of the 68 JIA risk loci tested, eight conferred sex-specific risk for JIA. Of these, three had statistically significant evidence of sex modifying the effect of that SNP on JIA. Of note, we replicated the femalespecific association of PTPN22 rs2476601 across two independent samples. Our findings illustrate that the genetic architecture of JIA differs between the sexes. Our third aim was to investigate whether the Y chromosome contributes to JIA risk in males. We determined that genetic variation captured by Y chromosome haplogroup I was associated with JIA risk, in males over the age of 6. We also demonstrated that there was an increased risk of JIA for males that had a father with autoimmune disease. Our findings are the first to suggest that the Y chromosome may play a role in JIA risk and provide further evidence that JIA has sex-specific genetic architecture. Next we considered the role of the environment in JIA risk. The fourth aim of this study was to assess the association between factors that impact vitamin D status and JIA. We identified a protective association between increasing UVR exposure over the life course and at 12 weeks of pregnancy, and JIA. Our findings are the first to implicate insufficient UVR exposure in the development of JIA. We then considered mechanisms through which genetic and environmental risk may be mediated, such as DNA methylation and gene expression. Our fifth aim was to identify sex-specific DNA methylation differences in CD4+ T cells between oligoarticular JIA cases and healthy controls. Oligoarticular JIA cases did not have substantial sex-specific DNA methylation differences when compared to controls, but there was evidence of modest case–control differences and these were more prominent in males than females. Our findings suggest that DNA methylation is not a significant driver of the sex bias in JIA. The final aim of this study was to investigate whether CD4+ T cell gene expression profiles differed between oligoarticular JIA cases and healthy controls. Oligoarticular JIA cases had aberrant gene expression relative to controls, suggesting that disease processes are in part driven by gene regulatory differences in CD4+ T cells. In conclusion, the cumulative findings of this study improve our understanding of the aetiology of JIA by revealing sex-specific genetic architecture for the disease, establishing UVR exposure as an environmental risk factor for JIA, and characterising the DNA methylation and gene expression signatures of the active disease state.