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For Immediate Release
Thursday, October 17, 2019
12:00 p.m. U.S. Central Time

Cystic Fibrosis Carriers at Increased Risk of Digestive Symptoms
Findings Reported at ASHG 2019 Annual Meeting

Yu-Chung (Jerry) Lin, BA, MSC, graduate student at the University of Toronto (courtesy Mr. Lin)

Yu-Chung (Jerry) Lin, BA, MSC, graduate student at the University of Toronto
(courtesy Mr. Lin)

HOUSTON, Texas – Researchers have found that carriers of the most common genetic variant that causes cystic fibrosis experience some symptoms similar to those of people with cystic fibrosis. These findings were enabled by large-scale genomic data made available just a few years ago. Yu-Chung (Jerry) Lin, BA, MSc, a graduate student at the University of Toronto, presented the research at the American Society of Human Genetics 2019 Annual Meeting in Houston, Texas.

Cystic fibrosis is a recessive disease caused by variants of the CFTR gene, which means that affected individuals have two such variants. It affects many organs, and symptoms vary from patient to patient. They can include lung function decline, intestinal obstruction, diabetes, and pancreatic dysfunction. The extent of a person’s symptoms can be affected by modifier genes, which do not directly cause cystic fibrosis but can affect how they experience disease.

Researchers have long assumed that carriers, who have one copy of a disease-causing CFTR variant, do not experience any symptoms. However, given the disease’s wide breadth of symptoms, Mr. Lin explained, researchers needed a very large sample size to definitively answer this question.

Senior author Lisa Strug, PhD, Associate Director of The Centre for Applied Genomics at The Hospital for Sick Children, explained, “Although many individuals are learning of their CFTR carrier status through family planning or the use of personal genomics companies, researchers have not yet thoroughly investigated whether a phenotype for cystic fibrosis carriers exists.”

By utilizing the UK Biobank, Mr. Lin and the team studied 263,000 people of European ancestry – the population among which cystic fibrosis is most common – whose medical records reflected at least one diagnosis from the ICD-10 classification of disease. Of these individuals, 8,700 were carriers of the most common cystic fibrosis variant.

Through a phenome-wide association study, the researchers found specific associations between cystic fibrosis carrier status, modifier genes, and several digestive system phenotypes.

“For example, we found that carriers were twice as likely as non-carriers to experience bile duct obstruction,” Mr. Lin said. “While it is important to note that being a carrier doesn’t predict symptoms for any given individual, the association study shows that there may be phenotypic risks to having even one copy of the cystic fibrosis variant. It’s important to consider the clinical impact of this information carefully.”

Mr. Lin and Dr. Strug plan to continue performing association studies using the data from the UK Biobank, to identify other phenotypic associations, including associations to symptoms like cough and lung function that do not have a diagnosis code in the ICD-10. They are also further examining the effects of cystic fibrosis modifier genes, which affect the severity of symptoms in people with the disease, on the symptoms experienced by carriers. They are hopeful that such a breadth of data will provide answers for carriers that were not available before.

Media Interest: To learn more about Mr. Lin's work or set up an interview, please contact press@ashg.org to coordinate.

Reference: Y Lin et al. (2019 Oct 17). Abstract: Defining the phenotypic signature of CFTR mutation carriers in the UK Biobank. Presented at the American Society of Human Genetics 2019 Annual Meeting. Houston, Texas.

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About the American Society of Human Genetics (ASHG)

Founded in 1948, the American Society of Human Genetics is the primary professional membership organization for human genetics specialists worldwide. Its nearly 8,000 members include researchers, academicians, clinicians, laboratory practice professionals, genetic counselors, nurses, and others with an interest in human genetics. The Society serves scientists, health professionals, and the public by providing forums to: (1) share research results through the ASHG Annual Meeting and in The American Journal of Human Genetics; (2) advance genetic research by advocating for research support; (3) educate current and future genetics professionals, health care providers, advocates, policymakers, educators, students, and the public about all aspects of human genetics; and (4) promote genetic services and support responsible social and scientific policies. For more information, visit: http://www.ashg.org.

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