Simultaneous modeling of disease status and clinical phenotypes to increase power in GWAS

Michael Bilow and Eleazar Eskin, together with Fernando Crespo, Zhicheng Pan, and Susana Eyheramendy, recently released a novel method for accurate joint modeling of clinical phenotype and disease status. This approach incorporates a clinical phenotype into case/control studies under the assumption that the genetic variant can affect both.

Genetic case-control association studies have found thousands of associations between genetic variants and disease. Most studies collect data from individuals with and without disease, and they often search for variants with different frequencies between the groups. Jointly modelling clinical phenotype and disease status is a promising way to increase power to detect true associations between genetics and disease. In particular, this method increases potential for discovering genetic variants that are associated with both a clinical phenotype and a disease.

However, standard multivariate techniques fail to effectively solve this problem because their case-control status is discrete and not continuous. Standard approaches to estimate model parameters are biased due to the ascertainment in case/control studies. We present a novel method that resolves both of these issues for simultaneous association testing of genetic variants that have both case status and a clinical covariate.

In our paper, we show the utility of our method using data from the North Finland Birth Cohort (NFBC) dataset. NFBC enrolled almost everyone born in 1966 in Finland’s two most northern provinces. The NFBC dataset consists of 10 phenotypes and genotypes at 331,476 genetic variants measured in 5,327 individuals. We focus our study on the LDL cholesterol and triglyceride levels phenotypes.

Our evaluation strategy analyzes a subset of the NFBC data and compares what we discover here to what was discovered in the full NFBC dataset—which we treat as the gold standard. We compare the performance of our novel approach to three other methods: (1) the single univariate test applied to the disease status, (2) the multivariate approach applied to the disease status and the clinical phenotype modeled as a multivariate normal distribution, and (3) the liability threshold model treating the clinical phenotype as a covariate.

Using the univariate approach, the p-values are much weaker in comparison to those observed in the full NFBC dataset. Running the multivariate approaches, incorporating the triglyceride levels phenotypes, increased power (i.e., more significant p-values than SNPs).

Our method has the highest power in all scenarios. The advantage of our method is greater when there are substantial amounts of selection bias compared to lower amounts of selection bias. Our method is even more powerful when the correlation between the clinical covariate and the disease liability is lower, because we explicitly estimate the underlying liability using all of the data.

For more information, see our paper in Genetics:

The software implementing the methods described in this paper was developed by Fernando Crespo and is available at: and

An illustration of the distribution of liability in a case-control study under selection bias. For more information, read our paper.

The full citation to our paper is:
Bilow, M., Crespo, F., Pan, Z., Eskin, E. and Eyheramendy, S., 2017. Simultaneous Modeling of Disease Status and Clinical Phenotypes to Increase Power in GWAS. Genetics, pp.genetics-116.


Colocalization of GWAS and eQTL Signals Detects Target Genes

Farhad Hormozdiari recently developed a method for combining genome-wide association studies (GWASs) and quantitative trait loci (eQTL) studies in a statistical framework that quantifies the probability of each variant to be causal while allowing an arbitrary number of causal variants. Together with collaborators at the University of Oxford and Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, we present a paper in The American Journal of Human Genetics. Here, we describe eQTL and GWAS CAusal Variants Identification in Associated Regions (eCAVIAR). We apply our approach to datasets from several GWASs and eQTL studies in order to assess its accuracy and potential contributions to colocalization and fine-mapping.

Integrating GWASs and eQTL studies is a promising way to explore the mechanism of non-coding variants on diseases. Integration of GWAS and eQTL data is challenging due to the uncertainty induced by linkage disequilibrium (LD), the non-random association of alleles at different loci, and presence of loci that harbor multiple causal variants (allelic heterogeneity). Current methods assume that each locus contains a single causal variant and expect loci to be independent and associated randomly.

eCAVIAR is a novel probabilistic model for integrating GWAS and eQTL data that extends the CAVIAR (Hormozdiari et al. 2014) framework to explicitly estimate the posterior probability of the same variant being causal in both GWAS and eQTL studies, while accounting for allelic heterogeneity and LD. Our approach can quantify the strength between a causal variant and its associated signals in both studies, and it can be used to colocalize variants that pass the genome-wide significance threshold in GWAS. For any given peak variant identified in GWAS, eCAVIAR considers a collection of variants around that peak variant as one single locus.

We apply eCAVIAR to the Meta-Analyses of Glucose and Insulin-related traits Consortium (MAGIC) dataset and GTEx dataset to detect the target gene and most relevant tissue for each GWAS risk locus. When applied to the MAGIC dataset’s 2 phenotypes, eCAVIAR identifies genetic variants that are causal in both eQTL and GWAS. Further, eCAVIAR detects a large number of loci where the GWAS causal variants are clearly distinct from the causal variants in the eQTL data. Interestingly, eCAVIAR also identifies genes that colocalize in one tissue yet can be excluded in others. For the majority of loci in which we identify a single variant causal for both GWAS and eQTL, eCAVIAR implicates more than one causal variant across the 45 tissues.

We observe that eCAVIAR outperforms existing methods even when there are different values of non-colocalization. Using simulated datasets, we compared accuracy, precision, and recall rate of eCAVIAR to RTC (Nica et al. 2010) and COLOC (Giambartolomei et al. 2014), two current methods for eQTL and GWAS colocalization. Our results show that eCAVIAR has high confidence for selecting loci to be colocalized between the GWAS and eQTL data and is conservative in selecting a locus to be colocalized.

We hope that future applications of eCAVIAR will advance identification of specific GWAS loci that share a causal variant with eQTL studies in a tissue, thus providing insight into presently unclear disease mechanisms.


Overview of eCAVIAR.


eCAVIAR was created by Farhad Hormozdiari, Ayellet V. Segre, Martijn van de Bunt, Xiao Li, Jong Wha J Joo, Michael Bilow, Jae Hoon Sul, Bogdan Pasaniuc and Eleazar Eskin. The article is available at:

Visit the following page to download CAVIAR and eCAVIAR:

The full citation to our paper is:

Hormozdiari, Farhad; van de Bunt, Martijn; Segrè, Ayellet V; Li, Xiao; Joo, Jong Wha J; Bilow, Michael; Sul, Jae Hoon; Sankararaman, Sriram; Pasaniuc, Bogdan; Eskin, Eleazar

Colocalization of GWAS and eQTL Signals Detects Target Genes. Journal Article

In: Am J Hum Genet, 2016, ISSN: 1537-6605.

Abstract | Links | BibTeX

Our paper builds upon a method introduced in a previous publication:

Hormozdiari, Farhad; Kostem, Emrah ; Kang, Eun Yong ; Pasaniuc, Bogdan ; Eskin, Eleazar

Identifying causal variants at Loci with multiple signals of association. Journal Article

In: Genetics, 198 (2), pp. 497-508, 2014, ISSN: 1943-2631.

Abstract | Links | BibTeX

ZarLab goes to Vancouver for ASHG!


Last week many members of our group traveled to Vancouver, British Columbia, for the annual meeting of the American Society of Human Genetics. The 66th Annual Meeting, which took place October 18-22, 2016, featured over 3000 talks, workshops, and poster presentations on topics such as bioinformatics and computational methods, developmental genetics and gene function, cancer and cardiovascular diseases, evolutionary and population genetics, and genetic counseling.

ZarLab contributed 8 poster presentations and one research talk. Serghei Mangul discussed his recent work on dumpster-diving techniques in a talk titled, “Comprehensive analysis of RNA-sequencing to find the source of every last read across 544 individuals from 53 tissues,” as part of the Interpreting the Transcriptome in Health and Disease symposium. You can view his slides here:

ZarLab in Vancouver!

ZarLab in Vancouver!

Recent alumni Farhad Hormozdiari received a Reviewers’ Choice ribbon for his poster titled, “Joint fine mapping of GWAS and eQTL detects target gene and relevant tissue.” Only the top 10% of posters by topic receive this honor, as determined by the reviewers’ scores of the submitted abstracts. Congratulations, Farhad!

Other posters presented by members of our group:

  • Prevalence of allelic heterogeneity in complex traits. Eleazar Eskin
  • Modeling the covariance of effect sizes in a meta-analysis. Dat Duong
  • Estimating regional heritability in the presence of linkage disequilibrium. Lisa Gai
  • linear mixed models for quantitative traits in health-system scale data. Michael Bilow
  • Utilizing allele specific expression to identify cis-regulatory variants. Jennifer Zou
  • Haplotype-based predictors for complex trait association. Rob Brown
  • Repeat elements expression profile across different tissues in GTEx samples. Harry Yang