Approaches for establishing the function of regulatory genetic variants involved in disease.
The diversity of regulatory genetic variants and their mechanisms of action reflect the complexity and context-specificity of gene regulation. Regulatory variants are important in human disease and defining such variants and establishing mechanism is crucial to the interpretation of disease-association studies. This review describes approaches for identifying and functionally characterizing regulatory variants, illustrated using examples from common diseases. Insights from recent advances in resolving the functional epigenomic regulatory landscape in which variants act are highlighted, showing how this has enabled functional annotation of variants and the generation of hypotheses about mechanism of action. The utility of quantitative trait mapping at the transcript, protein and metabolite level to define association of specific genes with particular variants and further inform disease associations are reviewed. Establishing mechanism of action is an essential step in resolving functional regulatory variants, and this review describes how this is being facilitated by new methods for analyzing allele-specific expression, mapping chromatin interactions and advances in genome editing. Finally, integrative approaches are discussed together with examples highlighting how defining the mechanism of action of regulatory variants and identifying specific modulated genes can maximize the translational utility of genome-wide association studies to understand the pathogenesis of diseases and discover new drug targets or opportunities to repurpose existing drugs to treat them.