Identifying genetic variants and pathways associated with extreme levels of fetal hemoglobin in sickle cell disease in Tanzania

Background Sickle cell disease (SCD) is a blood disorder caused by a point mutation on the beta globin gene resulting in the synthesis of abnormal hemoglobin. Fetal hemoglobin (HbF) reduces disease severity, but the levels vary from one individual to another. Most research has focused on common genetic variants which differ across populations and hence do not fully account for HbF variation. Methods We investigated rare and common genetic variants that influence HbF levels in 14 SCD patients to elucidate variants and pathways in SCD patients with extreme HbF levels (≥7.7% for high HbF) and (≤2.5% for low HbF) in Tanzania. We performed targeted next generation sequencing (Illumina_Miseq) covering exonic and other significant fetal hemoglobin-associated loci, including BCL11A, MYB, HOXA9, HBB, HBG1, HBG2, CHD4, KLF1, MBD3, ZBTB7A and PGLYRP1. Results Results revealed a range of genetic variants, including bi-allelic and multi-allelic SNPs, frameshift insertions and deletions, some of which have functional importance. Notably, there were significantly more deletions in individuals with high HbF levels (11% vs 0.9%). We identified frameshift deletions in individuals with high HbF levels and frameshift insertions in individuals with low HbF. CHD4 and MBD3 genes, interacting in the same sub-network, were identified to have a significant number of pathogenic or non-synonymous mutations in individuals with low HbF levels, suggesting an important role of epigenetic pathways in the regulation of HbF synthesis. Conclusions This study provides new insights in selecting essential variants and identifying potential biological pathways associated with extreme HbF levels in SCD interrogating multiple genomic variants associated with HbF in SCD.