Genetics of Osteoporosis
Genetics research has significant implications for clinical care.
In the last few years, a series of large, well powered studies have dramatically increased scientists’ understanding of specific genetic factors that influence osteoporosis. This information is highly significant because it influences the ability to predict who’s at risk for the disease and it also can enable better treatment of those who already have osteoporosis. So what exactly is known about the genetics of osteoporosis, and how can that information aid clinical practice? Here, Today’s Geriatric Medicine reviews the latest research.
Bone Mineral Density and Fracture Risk: Highly Heritable Traits
There are a number of forms of bone fragility that are monogenic, meaning they’re caused by mutation of a single gene influencing skeletal biology. Examples of such conditions include Paget’s disease and osteogenesis imperfecta. But these diseases are relatively rare, and monogenic forms of bone fragility explain only a very small portion of osteoporosis risk overall. Most cases of osteoporosis are polygenic—meaning they have a relatively complex etiology stemming from the interaction of multiple genes.2 Environmental factors, such as physical inactivity, poor nutrition, smoking, or alcohol consumption, also play a role in increasing risk.
The Age of GWAS: A Revolution in the Study of the Genetics of Osteoporosis
In the last few years, however, use of genomewide association studies (GWAS) has transformed the study of the genetics of disease in general and osteoporosis in particular. Unlike candidate-gene association studies, GWAS examine genetic variants across the entire genome.
In 2008, the first meaningful GWAS related to osteoporosis used a sample of 8,557 participants to identify two genes—LRP5 and TNFRSF11B (OPG)—that were associated with lumbar spine and femoral neck BMD in the general population. The first of these genes was also shown to be associated with osteoporotic fractures.5 Later that same year, a second GWAS with a sample of 13,786 individuals from Iceland identified three new loci associated with both BMD and osteoporotic fracture.6 The same research group in Iceland later expanded sample size to 15,375 and identified several additional variants.7 One of the loci identified in the second Icelandic study, SP7 (osterix), was then confirmed in the first GWAS of BMD in children.8
These early GWAS sample sizes were comparatively small—limited to about 15,000 participants. This meant relatively low statistical power, which in turn meant that these earlier studies could only identify loci that had relatively large effect sizes.1
As GWAS sample sizes became larger, the analyses could pick up on loci with smaller effect sizes, and there were dramatic increases in the discovery of loci associated with BMD.
Of particular value was research released by the GEnetic Factors for OSteoporosis (GEFOS) Consortium, which began publishing a series of GWAS meta-analyses starting in 2009. The first of these meta-analyses included 19,195 participants and identified 13 new loci associated with BMD.9 Three years later, the consortium published another meta-analysis that included 32,961 participants and identified 32 new loci (in addition to confirming loci that had already been identified). Fourteen of these new loci were also associated with osteoporotic fractures.10
In 2018, the GEFOS Consortium published yet another meta-analysis with 66,628 participants. This study identified 80 total loci associated with total-body BMD, of which 36 were previously unidentified.11 It had an added significance in that it included an age-specific analysis. The results showed that one locus in particular (ESR1) had an age-dependent effect on BMD, but most identified loci do not appear to have an age-dependent effect. This is important because it suggests that most of the genes associated with BMD affect peak BMD acquisition and that these effects are observable throughout the life course.2
A few other GWAS have begun to look at sex-specific effects. One specific variant at FAM9B has shown an effect in BMD on men only, and several loci have been identified as being significantly associated with BMD, fracture risk, or other bone parameters specifically in women.12-14
The Biobank Project: A Dramatic Step Forward in Sample Sizes
Since 2017, there have been several new GWAS of BMD using data from the UK Biobank project.12,15,16 The UK Biobank studies involve approximately 420,000 participants and are the most significant studies to date on the genetics of osteoporosis.15,16 These studies have been able to identify a total of approximately 500 to 600 loci associated with heel BMD, of which 301 are new loci that had not been identified previously. With these new loci, it’s now possible to explain approximately 20% to 25% of phenotypic variance in BMD.1,16
According to David Karasik, PhD, an associate scientist in the Hinda and Arthur Marcus Institute for Aging Research, as well as an associate professor in Bar Ilan University (Israel), the major weakness of the UK Biobank is that it’s limited to individuals from a single country. In addition, participants in the UK Biobank are relatively young (45 to 65 years of age, which means that the studies using these data don’t give much insight into osteoporosis in the geriatric population), and they are mostly white. Research into ethnic minorities “is totally underdeveloped—we don’t have Hispanics, we don’t have blacks,” Karasik says. “We really cannot apply the genetic findings to ethnic minorities.”
Still, the findings from this data bank underscore the sheer number of genetic factors that influence osteoporosis. In the earlier stages of research on the genetics of osteoporosis, the assumption was that there would be only a few genes that would determine osteoporosis risk, but the UK Biobank studies demonstrate that the actual number is quite large. This is striking, given that few other diseases or traits have so many identified loci that are associated at genomewide significance.15
Whole-Genome Sequencing: The Push to Identify Less Common Variants
To help uncover less common variants that could affect BMD and fracture, a number of recent studies have begun to rely on whole-genome sequencing rather than on GWAS. “When we are doing whole-genome sequencing, we are literally testing every genetic variant in the subject’s genome,” says Hui Shen, PhD, an associate professor in the School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine at Tulane University, as well as associate director of the university’s Center for Bioinformatics and Genomics. “So we can pick up not only those common variants that are highly frequent in the population but also so-called rare variants.”
A strategy that’s been employed in some recent research is to use whole-genome sequencing to examine individuals with either very low or very high BMD to identify rare variants that may have large effect sizes. Such studies have identified several rare mutations at LGR4 and at COL1A2 that are all associated with low BMD.18,19 One particularly powerful whole-genome sequencing study identified a noncoding variant at EN1 that also has large effects on BMD.20
Zeroing in on Fracture Risk
Although such studies are limited, there are a few. The largest and most significant GWAS focusing on fracture in particular is a 2018 meta-analysis of data from 25 cohorts across Europe, the United States, Asia, and Australia. The participants in this meta-analysis included 37,857 individuals with fracture plus 227,116 controls. The study identified 15 genes associated with fracture risk, all of which were also associated with BMD. These results underscore the clear effect of BMD on fracture risk, although it is noteworthy that the identified genes had a smaller effect on fracture risk than they did on BMD.21
Another key limitation of the existing research is that it has focused very heavily on BMD to the exclusion of other bone traits such as bone size and quality. (Bone quality refers to several properties such as tissue strength, fracture toughness, and fatigue strength.) The focus on BMD is understandable in a sense, both because BMD is the single biggest predictor of fracture risk and because it is the easiest bone trait to measure. Yet many people with low BMD do not experience fracture, and many people with normal BMD do fracture. Thus there’s a need for genetic research focusing on other bone traits as well.17
Relevance for Clinical Practice
To begin with, genetic information can be used to gauge which individuals are at risk of osteoporosis and fracture. Stuart Kim, PhD, an emeritus professor of developmental biology at Stanford University, is one of the researchers engaged in applying genetics to risk prediction models. Kim, who’s the author of one of the recent UK Biobank studies, has not only identified new variants associated with BMD but also used that genetic information to develop a composite risk score for low BMD (and by extension osteoporosis and fracture).16 When he tested that risk score on a population of approximately 50,000 people, its ability to accurately predict which had low BMD turned out to be remarkably high. “It gets it right 78% of the time,” Kim says. “By comparison, this is more informative than breast cancer testing or Alzheimer’s testing. Those are two things that are well known to work for genetic testing, and this [risk score] works better than that.”
Farber agrees that genetic data will provide a valuable addition to risk prediction models. “We have relatively good prediction tools—things like FRAX,” he says. “But I think that in the next couple of years, there will be a push to include genetic information to make those predictions more accurate. I’m not sure what the timeline will be. It may be five to 10 years from now, but I think, moving forward, these data will begin to be used for prediction and risk stratification.”
In addition to aiding risk prediction, genetic data can also be used to develop new pharmaceutical treatments. “These actually [give] us insight [into] the pathophysiology of the development of osteoporosis. That actually can provide us with new targets for drug development,” Shen says. Five of the eight drugs approved for osteoporosis target genes for which there’s evidence of a contribution to osteoporosis, demonstrating the value of genetic understanding for pharmaceutical development.
Genetic understanding can also help clinicians tailor specific treatments to individuals who will benefit most. “There are more and more indications that those adverse effects [that some patients experience while taking osteoporosis drugs] are genetically predictable,” Karasik says. Research is not yet to the point where scientists can identify based on genetics which patients will respond well to which drugs, but the field probably will be at that point within the next year or two, according to Karasik.
Finally, genetic information could also help prevent osteoporosis before it actually develops. Specifically, genetic testing could be used to alert younger individuals that they are at risk of low BMD, which could in turn encourage preventive lifestyle interventions. “Imagine somebody when they are 80 and they have low BMD,” Kim says. Weight-bearing exercise and diet don’t do anything anymore. You have to take these drugs for osteoporosis, and the drugs are not fun. That same 80-year-old, if they started when they were 20 or 30, then they can improve their BMD by doing weight-bearing exercise and eating calcium and vitamin D. … We could be alerting young people about a disease they can avert 50 years from now.”
All told then, genetics research has significant implications for clinical care. “I doubt [most physicians] see genetics as a useful tool in clinical decisions currently because it’s not part of FRAX, [and] the drugs don’t have labeling to take genetics into account,” Karasik says. But physicians should expect that genetics will soon be impacting practice in multiple ways. “It will come,” he says.
— Jamie Santa Cruz is a health and medical writer in the greater Denver area.
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