Wilson's disease: a new gene and an animal model for an old disease.

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Wilson's disease is an autosomal recessive, inherited disorder of copper metabolism. In normal individuals, copper homeostasis is controlled by the balance between intestinal absorption of dietary copper and hepatic excretion of excess copper in bile. In Wilson's disease, hepatic copper is neither excreted in bile nor incorporated into ceruloplasmin and copper accumulates to toxic levels. The Wilson's disease gene (WND) encodes a putative copper-transporting protein that is expressed almost exclusively in the liver. The predicted structure of the protein product is that of a P-type ATPase with striking homology to bacterial copper transporters and the gene product of another inherited disorder of copper metabolism, Menkes' disease. A rat model of Wilson's disease has recently been identified. The Long-Evans Cinnamon (LEC) rat manifests elevated hepatic copper, defective incorporation of copper into ceruloplasmin, and reduced biliary excretion of copper. The rat homologue of the WND is abnormal in LEC rats. Clinical manifestations of Wilson's disease arise directly from copper-induced damage to hepatocytes (hepatic presentation) or indirectly after the release of copper from the liver with subsequent damage to the brain (neuropsychiatric presentation) and other organs. Genetic heterogeneity (different mutations in a single gene) may account for some of the variability in Wilsonian presentations. The diagnosis of Wilson's disease depends on the demonstration of disordered copper metabolism, manifested as elevated urinary and hepatic copper and low ceruloplasmin levels. However, none of the abnormal findings in Wilson's disease is pathognomonic. Genetic diagnosis, in the absence of family studies, is likely to be difficult since many different mutations result in the disease. Management of Wilson's disease involves decreasing excess levels of copper accumulated in the liver, brain, and other organs. Copper chelation therapy, to increase urinary excretion of copper, is the mainstay of treatment. In addition, oral zinc therapy may be useful at decreasing absorption of dietary copper and rendering tissue copper nontoxic, by increasing the formation of complexes with copper-binding proteins. Liver transplantation can be necessary for individuals with acute hepatic failure or complications of cirrhosis. Gene therapy may evolve in the future; however, medical management is effective in most patients.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)323-336
Number of pages14
JournalJournal of investigative medicine : the official publication of the American Federation for Clinical Research
Issue number4
StatePublished - Aug 1995

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology(all)


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