This study aims at investigating the HLA molecular variation across Switzerland in order to determine possible regional differences, which would be highly relevant to several purposes: optimizing donor recruitment strategies in hematopoietic stem cell transplantation (HSCT), providing reliable reference data in HLA and disease association studies, and understanding the population genetic background(s) of this culturally heterogeneous country. HLA molecular data of more than 20,000 HSCT donors from 9-13 recruitment centers of the whole country were analyzed. Allele and haplotype frequencies were estimated by using new computer tools adapted to the heterogeneity and ambiguity of the data. Non-parametric and resampling statistical tests were performed to assess Hardy-Weinberg equilibrium, selective neutrality and linkage disequilibrium among different loci, both in each recruitment center and in the whole national registry. Genetic variation was explored through genetic distance and hierarchical analysis of variance taking into account both geographic and linguistic subdivisions in Switzerland. The results indicate a heterogeneous genetic makeup of the Swiss population: first, allele frequencies estimated on the whole national registry strongly deviate from Hardy-Weinberg equilibrium, by contrast with the results obtained for individual centers; second, a pronounced differentiation is observed for Ticino, Graubünden, and, to a lesser extent, Wallis, suggesting that the Alps represent(ed) a barrier to gene flow; finally, although cultural (linguistic) boundaries do not represent a main genetic differentiation factor in Switzerland, the genetic relatedness between population from south-eastern Switzerland and Italy agrees with historical and linguistic data. Overall, this study justifies the maintenance of a decentralized donor recruitment structure in Switzerland allowing increasing the genetic diversity of the national--and hence global--donor registry. It also indicates that HLA data of local donor recruitment centers can be used as reference data in both epidemiological and population genetic studies focusing on the genetic history of present European populations.
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