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Complement genes contribute sex-biased vulnerability in diverse disorders.

Nature. 2020;10.1038/s41586-020-2277-x. doi:10.1038/s41586-020-2277-x [published online ahead of print, 2020 May 11]

Authors/Editors: Kamitaki N, Sekar A, Handsaker RE, de Rivera H, Tooley K, Morris DL, Taylor KE, Whelan CW, Tombleson P, Loohuis LMO, Schizophrenia Working Group of the Psychiatric Genomics Consortium [i.a. Müller-Myhsok B ], Boehnke M, Kimberly RP, Kaufman KM, Harley JB, Langefeld CD, Seidman CE, Pato MT, Pato CN, Ophoff RA, Graham RR, Criswell LA, Vyse TJ, McCarroll SA.
Publication Date: 2020


Many common illnesses differentially affect men and women for unknown reasons. The autoimmune diseases lupus and Sjögren’s syndrome affect nine times more women than men1,2, whereas schizophrenia affects men more frequently and severely3–5. All three illnesses have their strongest common-genetic associations in the Major Histocompatibility Complex (MHC) locus, an association that in lupus and Sjögren’s syndrome has long been thought to arise from HLA alleles6–13. Here we show that the complement component 4 (C4) genes in the MHC locus, recently found to increase risk for schizophrenia14, generate 7-fold variation in risk for lupus (95% CI: 5.88-8.61; p < 10−117 in total) and 16-fold variation in risk for Sjögren’s syndrome (95% CI: 8.59-30.89; p < 10−23 in total), with C4A protecting more strongly than C4B in both illnesses. The same alleles that increase risk for schizophrenia, greatly reduced risk for lupus and Sjögren’s syndrome. In all three illnesses, C4 alleles acted more strongly in men than in women: common combinations of C4A and C4B generated 14-fold variation in risk for lupus and 31-fold variation in risk for Sjögren’s syndrome in men (vs. 6-fold and 15-fold among women respectively) and affected schizophrenia risk about twice as strongly in men as in women. At a protein level, both C4 and its effector (C3) were present at greater levels in men than women in cerebrospinal fluid (p < 10−5 for both C4 and C3) and plasma among adults ages 20-5015–17, corresponding to the ages of differential disease vulnerability. Sex differences in complement protein levels may help explain the larger effects of C4 alleles in men, women’s greater risk of SLE and Sjögren’s, and men’s greater vulnerability in schizophrenia. These results nominate the complement system as a source of sexual dimorphism in vulnerability to diverse illnesses.

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