Background: The potential of Mendelian randomization studies is rapidly expanding due to: (i) the growing power of genome-wide association study (GWAS) meta-analyses to detect genetic variants associated with several exposures; and (ii) the increasing availability of these genetic variants in large-scale surveys. However, without a proper biological understanding of the pleiotropic working of genetic variants, a fundamental assumption of Mendelian randomization (the exclusion restriction) can always be contested. Methods: We build upon and synthesize recent advances in the literature on instrumental variables (IVs) estimation that test and relax the exclusion restriction. Our pleiotropyrobust Mendelian randomization (PRMR) method first estimates the degree of pleiotropy, and in turn corrects for it. If (i) a subsample exists for which the genetic variants do not affect the exposure; (ii) the selection into this subsample is not a joint consequence of the IV and the outcome; (iii) pleiotropic effects are homogeneous, PRMR obtains unbiased estimates of causal effects. Results: Simulations show that existing MR methods produce biased estimators for realistic forms of pleiotropy. Under the aforementioned assumptions, PRMR produces unbiased estimators. We illustrate the practical use of PRMR by estimating the causal effect of: (i) tobacco exposure on body mass index (BMI); (ii) prostate cancer on self-reported health; and (iii) educational attainment on BMI in the UK Biobank data. Conclusions: PRMR allows for instrumental variables that violate the exclusion restriction due to pleiotropy, and it corrects for pleiotropy in the estimation of the causal effect. If the degree of pleiotropy is unknown, PRMR can still be used as a sensitivity analysis.

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International Journal of Epidemiology
Erasmus School of Economics

van Kippersluis, H., & Rietveld, N. (2017). Pleiotropy-robust Mendelian randomization. International Journal of Epidemiology, 47(4), 1279–1288. doi:10.1093/ije/dyx002