PLoS Genet. 2018 Jul 12;14(7):e1007394. doi: 10.1371/journal.pgen.1007394. eCollection 2018 Jul.
Preterm birth is a leading cause of morbidity and mortality in infants. Genetic and environmental factors play a role in the susceptibility to preterm birth, but despite many investigations, the genetic basis for preterm birth remain largely unknown. Our objective was to identify rare, possibly damaging, nucleotide variants in mothers from families with recurrent spontaneous preterm births (SPTB). DNA samples from 17 Finnish mothers who delivered at least one infant preterm were subjected to whole exome sequencing. All mothers were of northern Finnish origin and were from seven multiplex families. Additional replication samples of European origin consisted of 93 Danish sister pairs (and two sister triads), all with a history of a preterm delivery. Rare exonic variants (frequency <1%) were analyzed to identify genes and pathways likely to affect SPTB susceptibility. We identified rare, possibly damaging, variants in genes that were common to multiple affected individuals. The glucocorticoid receptor signaling pathway was the most significant (p<1.7e-8) with genes containing these variants in a subgroup of ten Finnish mothers, each having had 2-4 SPTBs. This pathway was replicated among the Danish sister pairs. A gene in this pathway, heat shock protein family A (Hsp70) member 1 like (HSPA1L), contains two likely damaging missense alleles that were found in four different Finnish families. One of the variants (rs34620296) had a higher frequency in cases compared to controls (0.0025 vs. 0.0010, p = 0.002) in a large preterm birth genome-wide association study (GWAS) consisting of mothers of general European ancestry. Sister pairs in replication samples also shared rare, likely damaging HSPA1L variants. Furthermore, in silico analysis predicted an additional phosphorylation site generated by rs34620296 that could potentially affect chaperone activity or HSPA1L protein stability. Finally, in vitro functional experiment showed a link between HSPA1L activity and decidualization. In conclusion, rare, likely damaging, variants in HSPA1L were observed in multiple families with recurrent SPTB.