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A survey of compound heterozygous variants in pediatric cancers and structural birth defects

Compound heterozygous (CH) variants occur when two recessive alleles are inherited and the variants are located at different loci within the same gene in a given individual. CH variants are important contributors to many different types of recessively inherited diseases. However, many studies overlook CH variants because identification of this type of variant requires knowing the parent of origin for each nucleotide. Using computational methods, haplotypes can be inferred using a process called “phasing,” which estimates the chromosomal origin of most nucleotides. In this paper, we used germline, phased, whole-genome sequencing (WGS) data to identify CH variants across seven pediatric diseases (adolescent idiopathic scoliosis: n = 16, congenital heart defects: n = 709, disorders of sex development: n = 79, ewing sarcoma: n = 287, neuroblastoma: n = 259, orofacial cleft: n = 107, and syndromic cranial dysinnervation: n = 172), available as parent-child trios in the Gabriella Miller Kids First Data Resource Center. Relatively little is understood about the genetic underpinnings of these diseases. We classified CH variants as “potentially damaging” based on minor allele frequencies (MAF), Combined Annotation Dependent Depletion scores, variant impact on transcription or translation, and gene-level frequencies in the disease group compared to a healthy population. For comparison, we also identified homozygous alternate (HA) variants, which affect both gene copies at a single locus; HA variants represent an alternative mechanism of recessive disease development and do not require phasing. Across all diseases, 2.6% of the samples had a potentially damaging CH variant and 16.2% had a potentially damaging HA variant. Of these samples with potentially damaging variants, the average number of genes per sample was 1 with a CH variant and 1.25 with a HA variant. Across all samples, 5.1 genes per disease had a CH variant, while 35.6 genes per disease had a HA variant; on average, only 4.3% of these variants affected common genes. Therefore, when seeking to identify potentially damaging variants of a putatively recessive disease, CH variants should be considered as potential contributors to disease development. If CH variants are excluded from analysis, important candidate genes may be overlooked.

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