June 24, 2020

Modifiable environmental exposure and risk of rheumatoid arthritis – current evidence from genetic studies

X Jiang & L Alfredsson, 2020. Modifiable environmental exposure and risk of rheumatoid arthritis – current evidence from genetic studies, Arthritis Research and Therapy, Volume 22 (1).


Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a multifactorial chronic autoimmune disease, which involves a complex interplay of environmental triggers and genetic components in its etiology. It has been shown that genetics only explain about half of the liability to develop RA, leaving a large room for non-genetic factors. Indeed, several environmental exposures including smoking, drinking, obesity, and dietary patterns (and more) have been identified to be associated with RA risk, yet the observational nature of conventional epidemiological investigation hampers causal inference, as the validity of results could be plagued by measurement error, confounding, and/or reverse causality. Mendelian randomization (MR) is a novel statistical approach that uses genetic variants as instrumental variables (IV) to make causal inferences from observational data. The current genetic discoveries in the many heritable and modifiable human complex traits have provided an exceptional opportunity to evaluate a putative causal relationship between exposure and outcome in the absence of high-quality experimental or intervention studies, through a MR design. In the current review, we detail the contribution of MR studies hitherto conducted for modifiable environmental exposures with the risk of RA to understand the role of these factors in RA pathogenesis. We start with a brief introduction of each study, follow by a summarization of shortcomings and conclude by highlighting future directions. The application of MR design in the field of rheumatology remains limited. Only a few MR studies have examined the causal roles of vitamin D, cigarette smoking, alcohol consumption, coffee consumption, and levels of education in RA, where, no consistent evidence for a causal relationship has been found. Most studies lacked sensitivity analyses to verify MR model assumptions and to guarantee the validity of results. Almost all studies are likely to bias the strength of association towards a null value, since they used IVs from earlier GWAS(s) of exposures with a small sample size (i.e., few genetic markers). As the magnitudes of GWAS expand rapidly, additional trait-associated loci have been discovered. Incorporating these loci would greatly improve the strength of genetic instruments, as well as both the accuracy and precision of MR estimates. To conclude, there is a need for an update and a huge space for improvement of future MR studies in RA.

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