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A model of gene-gene and gene-environment interactions and its implications for targeting environmental interventions by genotype

Author(s): Wallace Helen

Journal: Theoretical Biology and Medical Modelling
ISSN 1742-4682

Volume: 3;
Issue: 1;
Start page: 35;
Date: 2006;
Original page

Abstract Background The potential public health benefits of targeting environmental interventions by genotype depend on the environmental and genetic contributions to the variance of common diseases, and the magnitude of any gene-environment interaction. In the absence of prior knowledge of all risk factors, twin, family and environmental data may help to define the potential limits of these benefits in a given population. However, a general methodology to analyze twin data is required because of the potential importance of gene-gene interactions (epistasis), gene-environment interactions, and conditions that break the 'equal environments' assumption for monozygotic and dizygotic twins. Method A new model for gene-gene and gene-environment interactions is developed that abandons the assumptions of the classical twin study, including Fisher's (1918) assumption that genes act as risk factors for common traits in a manner necessarily dominated by an additive polygenic term. Provided there are no confounders, the model can be used to implement a top-down approach to quantifying the potential utility of genetic prediction and prevention, using twin, family and environmental data. The results describe a solution space for each disease or trait, which may or may not include the classical twin study result. Each point in the solution space corresponds to a different model of genotypic risk and gene-environment interaction. Conclusion The results show that the potential for reducing the incidence of common diseases using environmental interventions targeted by genotype may be limited, except in special cases. The model also confirms that the importance of an individual's genotype in determining their risk of complex diseases tends to be exaggerated by the classical twin studies method, owing to the 'equal environments' assumption and the assumption of no gene-environment interaction. In addition, if phenotypes are genetically robust, because of epistasis, a largely environmental explanation for shared sibling risk is plausible, even if the classical heritability is high. The results therefore highlight the possibility – previously rejected on the basis of twin study results – that inherited genetic variants are important in determining risk only for the relatively rare familial forms of diseases such as breast cancer. If so, genetic models of familial aggregation may be incorrect and the hunt for additional susceptibility genes could be largely fruitless.
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