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Journal Article

Epigenetic scores for the circulating proteome as tools for disease prediction


Graumann,  Johannes
Biomolecular Mass Spectrometry, Max Planck Institute for Heart and Lung Research, Max Planck Society;

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Gadd, D. A., Hillary, R. F., McCartney, D. L., Zaghlool, S. B., Stevenson, A. J., Cheng, Y., et al. (2022). Epigenetic scores for the circulating proteome as tools for disease prediction. ELIFE, 11: e71802. doi:; 10.7554/eLife.71802.sa0; 10.7554/eLife.71802.sa1; 10.7554/eLife.71802.sa2.

Cite as: https://hdl.handle.net/21.11116/0000-000A-2460-1
Protein biomarkers have been identified across many age-related morbidities. However, characterising epigenetic influences could further inform disease predictions. Here, we leverage epigenome-wide data to study links between the DNA methylation (DNAm) signatures of the circulating proteome and incident diseases. Using data from four cohorts, we trained and tested epigenetic scores (EpiScores) for 953 plasma proteins, identifying 109 scores that explained between 1% and 58% of the variance in protein levels after adjusting for known protein quantitative trait loci (pQTL) genetic effects. By projecting these EpiScores into an independent sample (Generation Scotland; n = 9537) and relating them to incident morbidities over a follow-up of 14 years, we uncovered 137 EpiScore-disease associations. These associations were largely independent of immune cell proportions, common lifestyle and health factors, and biological aging. Notably, we found that our diabetes-associated EpiScores highlighted previous top biomarker associations from proteome-wide assessments of diabetes. These EpiScores for protein levels can therefore be a valuable resource for disease prediction and risk stratification.
eLife digest Although our genetic code does not change throughout our lives, our genes can be turned on and off as a result of epigenetics. Epigenetics can track how the environment and even certain behaviors add or remove small chemical markers to the DNA that makes up the genome. The type and location of these markers may affect whether genes are active or silent, this is, whether the protein coded for by that gene is being produced or not. One common epigenetic marker is known as DNA methylation. DNA methylation has been linked to the levels of a range of proteins in our cells and the risk people have of developing chronic diseases. Blood samples can be used to determine the epigenetic markers a person has on their genome and to study the abundance of many proteins. Gadd, Hillary, McCartney, Zaghlool et al. studied the relationships between DNA methylation and the abundance of 953 different proteins in blood samples from individuals in the German KORA cohort and the Scottish Lothian Birth Cohort 1936. They then used machine learning to analyze the relationship between epigenetic markers found in people's blood and the abundance of proteins, obtaining epigenetic scores or 'EpiScores' for each protein. They found 109 proteins for which DNA methylation patterns explained between at least 1% and up to 58% of the variation in protein levels. Integrating the 'EpiScores' with 14 years of medical records for more than 9000 individuals from the Generation Scotland study revealed 137 connections between EpiScores for proteins and a future diagnosis of common adverse health outcomes. These included diabetes, stroke, depression, Alzheimer's dementia, various cancers, and inflammatory conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis and inflammatory bowel disease. Age-related chronic diseases are a growing issue worldwide and place pressure on healthcare systems. They also severely reduce quality of life for individuals over many years. This work shows how epigenetic scores based on protein levels in the blood could predict a person's risk of several of these diseases. In the case of type 2 diabetes, the EpiScore results replicated previous research linking protein levels in the blood to future diagnosis of diabetes. Protein EpiScores could therefore allow researchers to identify people with the highest risk of disease, making it possible to intervene early and prevent these people from developing chronic conditions as they age.