Annie Cavanagh (CC BY-NC 4.0)

Genetic information can predict predisposition to blood diseases

Studies identify bulk of genetic variation that influences blood cell traits

Two large-scale genetic studies have identified the bulk of genetic variation that influences medically-important characteristics of our blood cells. Researchers from the Wellcome Sanger Institute, the University of Cambridge and colleagues from 101 research institutions world-wide, studied hundreds of thousands of participants and identified over 7,000 regions of the human genome that control blood cell characteristics, such as the numbers of red and white cells.

The studies, published in Cell, also show for the first time how a person’s genetic profile contributes to them developing blood diseases. This knowledge brings us one step closer to using genetic scoring in the clinic to predict personal risk of developing blood disorders.

Blood cells play an essential role in human health, including in our immune response, transporting oxygen around our body and clotting to prevent blood loss from injuries. Blood disorders such as anaemia, haemophilia and blood cancers are a significant global health burden.

Many of these disorders can be viewed as extremes of normal biological states, such as in anaemia, where having too few red blood cells results in inadequate oxygen supply to the body. These extremes can occur as a result of small variations in our DNA, some of which increase our risk of developing a disease.

By comparing the DNA sequences of large numbers of individuals, it is possible to investigate how genetic variations translate into physical characteristics or ‘traits’, including the chance of developing common diseases such as asthma, heart disease and haemophilia*.

In these studies, anonymised genomic and healthcare data from the UK Biobank** and other studies from the Blood Cell Consortium (BCX) were analysed, which included study participants of European, East Asian and African American ancestry. The authors discovered 7,193 distinct genetic regions associated with 29 blood cell measurements, which represents the largest set of correlated genetic regions identified to date.

The researchers also assessed the potential for predicting blood cell traits based on polygenic scores***, which are used to predict one person’s risk of disease compared to another’s based on the combined differences in their DNA. They found that polygenic scores could predict predisposition to complex diseases, including blood disorders.

“In this study, we have been able to show how a person’s genetic predisposition to certain blood-related measurements, as indicated by their polygenic score, can predispose them to blood disease. If a person is more genetically predisposed to low haemoglobin, for example, then they are more likely to develop anaemia.”

Dr Dragana Vuckovica first author of the study from the Wellcome Sanger Institute and the NIHR Blood and Transplant Research Unit in Donor Health and Genomics, University of Cambridge

As well as variations in DNA, environmental and other factors are involved in complex diseases such as asthma or haemophilia. Analyses conducted in this study improved the performance of polygenic scores, increasing their potential as a powerful tool to help predict personal risk.

“The construction of polygenic scores requires the analysis of large amounts of data. Our study shows that the performance of polygenic scores for predicting blood cell traits is improved by careful selection of a smaller set of genetic associations determined by deeper statistical analyses of the available data. This finding disrupts a common assumption that including a greater number of genetic associations will result in a better predictive polygenic score.”

Parsa Akbaria first author of the study from the University of Cambridge

“This study indicates that polygenic scores could be used routinely in personalised medicine in future, following further research. The DNA of every human being contains millions of variations that make us unique and which influence what is ‘normal’ for each of us. Genetics now helps us to benchmark what is ‘normal’ from birth, and allows us for the first time to monitor for deviations from this baseline that might indicate an increased risk of disease during our lifetime.”

Professor Nicole Soranzolead author of the study from the Wellcome Sanger Institute and University of Cambridge

More information

* For more information on genome-wide association studies and how they can help us to learn about health and disease, visit

** UK Biobank was established by the Wellcome Trust medical charity, Medical Research Council, Department of Health, Scottish Government and the Northwest Regional Development Agency. It has also had funding from the Welsh Government, British Heart Foundation, Cancer Research UK and Diabetes UK. UK Biobank is supported by the National Health Service (NHS). UK Biobank is open to bona fide researchers anywhere in the world, including those funded by academia and industry.  The medical research project is a non-profit charity which had initial funding of about £62 million.

*** For more information on polygenic risk scores, visit,for%20having%20coronary%20heart%20disease


Dragana Vuckovic, Erik L. Bao, Parsa Akbari, Caleb Lareau et al. (2020). The Polygenic and Monogenic Basis of Blood Traits and Diseases. Cell. DOI:

Chen et al. (2020). Trans-ethnic and ancestry-specific blood-cell genetics in 746,667 individuals from 5 global populations. Cell. DOI:

Selected websites

  • The National Institute for Health Research (NIHR)

    The National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) is the nation’s largest funder of health and care research. The NIHR:

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    The NIHR was established in 2006 to improve the health and wealth of the nation through research, and is funded by the Department of Health and Social Care. In addition to its national role, the NIHR supports applied health research for the direct and primary benefit of people in low- and middle-income countries, using UK aid from the UK government.

  • About the University of Cambridge

    The mission of the University of Cambridge is to contribute to society through the pursuit of education, learning and research at the highest international levels of excellence. To date, 107 affiliates of the University have won the Nobel Prize.

    Founded in 1209, the University comprises 31 autonomous Colleges, which admit undergraduates and provide small-group tuition, and 150 departments, faculties and institutions. Cambridge is a global university. Its 19,000 student body includes 3,700 international students from 120 countries. Cambridge researchers collaborate with colleagues worldwide, and the University has established larger-scale partnerships in Asia, Africa and America.

    The University sits at the heart of the ‘Cambridge cluster’, which employs 60,000 people and has in excess of £12 billion in turnover generated annually by the 4,700 knowledge-intensive firms in and around the city. The city publishes 341 patents per 100,000 residents.

  • The Wellcome Sanger Institute

    The Wellcome Sanger Institute is a world leading genomics research centre. We undertake large-scale research that forms the foundations of knowledge in biology and medicine. We are open and collaborative; our data, results, tools and technologies are shared across the globe to advance science. Our ambition is vast – we take on projects that are not possible anywhere else. We use the power of genome sequencing to understand and harness the information in DNA. Funded by Wellcome, we have the freedom and support to push the boundaries of genomics. Our findings are used to improve health and to understand life on Earth. Find out more at or follow us on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and on our Blog.

  • About Wellcome

    Wellcome exists to improve health by helping great ideas to thrive. We support researchers, we take on big health challenges, we campaign for better science, and we help everyone get involved with science and health research. We are a politically and financially independent foundation.