Alkaptonuria (AKU) (sometimes spelled alcaptonuria) is a disorder in which a substance called homogentisic acid (HGA) accumulates in cells and connective tissues throughout the body. Large amounts of HGA also are excreted in the urine. In a process known as ochronosis, deposits of HGA form dark pigments in the skin, joints, and other tissues of the body. Over the long term, ochronosis leads to ochronotic arthritis, which is a painful inflammation and stiffening of the joints. AKU is also known as homogentisic acid oxidase deficiency, ochronosis, alkaptonuria ochronosis, or ochronotic arthritis.
The black urine that characterizes AKU has been recognized throughout history. It sometimes was considered to be a bad omen. The dark pigmentation of ochronosis has been identified in an Egyptian mummy from 1500 B.C.
AKU was one of the first inherited disorders to be identified as a deficiency in a single enzyme in one pathway of the body's metabolism. In 1902, Sir Archibald Garrod, after consultation with the famous geneticist William Bateson, proposed that the inheritance of AKU could best be described by Gregor Mendel's theory of the inheritance of recessive characteristics. These are inherited traits expressed in some of the offspring of parents who both carry the trait. The parents may or may not express the trait. In 1908, Garrod coined the term "inborn error of metabolism" to describe AKU and three other metabolic disorders. Furthermore, he suggested that AKU was due to a deficiency in a specific enzyme, a protein that catalyzes one step of a metabolic pathway.
During normal metabolism, the 20 common amino acids, that are the building blocks of enzymes and other proteins, are broken down into simpler substances. This process provides energy for the body. The amino acids phenylalanine and tyrosine are converted to simpler substances in a series of eight steps. Each step in this pathway
AKU results from a deficiency in an enzyme called homogentisate 1,2-dioxygenase (HGD). This enzyme also is called homogentisic acid oxidase. It is responsible for the fourth step in the breakdown of phenylalanine and tyrosine, the conversion of HGA to 4-maleylacetoacetic acid. When there is a deficiency in active HGD, as in AKU, HGA cannot be broken down further. It accumulates in cells and tissues throughout the body, and large amounts of HGA are excreted in the urine.
Oxygen causes HGA molecules to combine with each other to form a very large molecule called a polymer. This polymer is a dark pigment similar to melanin, the pigment responsible for skin color. This pigment is formed in the tissues of the body, as well as in urine exposed to the oxygen in air. Oxygen can also convert HGA into a toxic substance called benzoquinone acetic acid.
HGA is excreted very quickly. In general, levels of HGA are kept quite low in individuals with AKU. Nevertheless, over time, large quantities of HGA, either as individual molecules or as a polymer, are deposited in the cartilage (the flexible tissue of the joints and other bony structures) and in other connective tissues of the body.
Granules of HGA pigment collect around collagen. This is the protein that makes up the fibers of connective tissues. Collagen is the most abundant protein in the body. It is a major structural component of cartilage, bone, tendons, ligaments, and blood vessels. Collagen also forms an important structural layer beneath the skin, and it holds together the cells of various tissues. The accumulation of HGA in connective tissues interferes with the body's ability to make new collagen. As a result, collagen fibers throughout the body are weakened. In particular, HGA weakens the collagen fibers in the cartilage of the joints.
Most treatment of AKU is directed at the diseased joints. The treatment for ochronosis is the same as for other forms of degenerative arthritis. Treatments include painkillers, physical therapy, rehabilitation, orthopedic supports, and rest. Chiropractic manipulations and exercise regimens also are utilized.
Treatment of ochronotic arthritis eventually may require hip and/or knee joint replacements with artificial materials. In older individuals, fusion of the lumbar discs of the lower spine may be necessary. Aortic valve replacement may be necessary to treat heart disease.
AKU is an autosomal recessive disorder. It is autosomal because the gene encoding the HGD enzyme is located on chromosome 3, rather than on either of the X or Y sex chromosomes. AKU is a recessive trait because it only occurs when an individual has two copies of the defective gene, one inherited from each parent. The two defective HGD genes do not need to carry the same mutations. If the two mutations are identical, the individual is a homozygote. If the two mutations are different, the affected individual is called a compound heterozygote.
In individuals with a single defective HGD gene, at least 50% of the HGD enzyme has normal activity. These individuals have no symptoms of AKU. However, they are carriers of AKU and can pass the gene on to their offspring.
All of the offspring of two parents with AKU will inherit the disorder. All of the offspring of one parent with AKU and one parent with a single defective HGD gene will inherit at least one defective HGD gene. These offspring have a 50% chance of inheriting two defective genes and developing AKU. The offspring of one parent with AKU and one parent with normal HGD genes will inherit a defective gene from the affected parent, but will not develop AKU. The offspring of parents who both carry one defective HGD gene have a 50% chance of inheriting one defective HGD gene. They have an additional 25% chance of inheriting two such genes and developing AKU. Finally, the children of one parent with a single defective HGD gene and one parent with normal HGD genes have a 50% chance of inheriting the defective gene, but will not develop AKU.
A large number of different mutations have been identified in the HGD gene. These changes reduce or destroy the activity of the HGD enzyme. Mutational hot spots have also been identified in the gene. These are regions of the gene in which mutations are particularly likely to occur.
As a recessive disorder, AKU requires two copies of the defective gene, one inherited from each parent. Thus, AKU is much more common in the offspring of couples who are related to each other, such as first or second cousins. As an autosomal disorder, AKU occurs equally among males and females. However, in general, the symptoms of arthritis appear at an earlier age in males and tend to be more severe than in females. The reason for this difference is not known.
AKU occurs with equal frequency among various races; however, the frequency varies substantially among different populations. It is most common in geographically isolated populations. The worldwide prevalence of AKU is estimated at between one in 100,000 and one in 250,000 individuals. However, some estimates are as low as one in a million individuals and, in the United States, AKU frequency is estimated to be only one in four million.
AKU occurs with particularly high frequency in the Dominican Republic, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic. The frequency has been reported to be as high as one in 19,000 live births in Slovakia. The frequency of AKU is particularly low in Finland. Certain mutations occur only in HGD genes from Slovakia. Two specific mutations occur in 50% of all Slovakians with AKU. Other mutations in HGD appear to be unique to the Finnish population.
Often, the first sign of AKU is the dark staining of an infant's diapers from the HGA in the urine. However, a significant number of AKU-affected individuals do not have blackened urine, particularly if their urine is acidic. Other than darkened urine, AKU generally has no symptoms throughout childhood and early adulthood. Nevertheless, pigment is being deposited in the tissues throughout the early years. Occasionally, black ear wax and pigmentation under the arms may develop before the age of 10.
The symptoms of ochronotic arthritis are similar to those of other types of arthritis. However, the large, weight-bearing joints usually are the most affected in ochronotic arthritis. These include the joints of the hips, knees, and shoulders, and between the vertebrae of the spine. The joints become stiff and difficult to move. This arthritis develops at an unusually early age. In unaffected individuals, similar arthritis usually does not develop before age 55. Men with AKU develop arthritis in their 30s and 40s. Women with AKU usually develop arthritis in their 50s.
AKU can lead to osteoarthrosis, a degenerative joint disease, and ochronotic arthropathy, which is characterized by the swelling and enlargement of the bones. Ankylosis, the adhesion of bones in the joints, also may occur. The pigment deposits may cause the cartilage to become brittle and susceptible to fragmenting. Individuals with AKU may be at risk for bone fractures.
Calcium deposits can lead to painful attacks similar to those of gout. This calcification may occur in the ear cartilage and in the lumbar disks of the lower back. The disks between vertebrae may become narrowed and eventually may collapse.
The coronary artery of the heart can become diseased as a result of AKU. The aortic valve of the heart may harden and narrow from calcification. Similar problems may develop with the mitral or left atrioventricular valve of the heart (mitral valvulitis). Deposits of pigment can lead to the formation of hard spots of cholesterol and fat (atherosclerotic plaques) in the arteries. This can put a person at risk for a heart attack.
Complications from the deficiency of the HGD enzyme arise primarily in the kidneys and the liver. HGD normally is most active in the kidneys, liver, small intestine, colon, and prostate. The calcification of the genital and urinary tract may lead to blockages in as many as 60% of individuals with ochronosis. Kidney stones and other kidney diseases may develop. Stones in the urine may occur in middle to late adulthood. Increasingly though, this condition is seen in children with AKU under the age of 15 and even as young as two. In men, pigment deposits may lead to stones in the prostate.
The teeth, the brain and spinal cord, and the endocrine system that produces hormones also may be affected by ochronosis. Breathing may become restricted due to the effects of ochronosis on the joints where the ribs attach to the spine. Deposits of pigment on the ear bones and on the membrane of the inner ear may lead to tinnitus, or ringing of the ears, and hearing problems.
AKU is often detected in early childhood because of the characteristic dark-staining of the urine. In adults, diagnosis usually is made on the basis of joint pain and skin discoloration. Most individuals with AKU have pigment visible in the whites of their eyes by their early 40s.
A family history of AKU helps with the diagnosis. Since many individuals with AKU have no symptoms, siblings of affected individuals should be tested for the disorder.
Identification of HGA
An individual with AKU may excrete as much as 4-8 g of HGA per day in the urine. There are several simple methods to test for HGA in the urine: the addition of sodium hydroxide (an alkali) to the urine will turn it dark; urine with HGA turns black when reacted with iron chloride; and alkaline urine containing HGA blackens photographic paper. In the laboratory, HGA can be identified in the urine using a technique called gas chromatographymass spectroscopy. This technique separates and identifies the components of a mixture.
There are a number of methods for identifying HGA in the blood and tissues. These include procedures for separating HGA from other components of the blood and instruments that can detect the characteristic color of HGA. With AKU, the concentration of HGA in the blood is approximately 40 micromolar, or 40 micromoles of per liter.
With AKU, there usually is visible black staining of cartilage in various body regions, particularly the larynx, trachea (windpipe), and cartilage junctions. Heavy deposits of pigment also occur in the bronchi (the air passages to the lungs). Pigment on the inside and outside of the cells of these tissues can be seen with a microscope.
A skin biopsy, the removal of a small piece of skin, may be used to obtain tissue for examination. The tissue is stained with dyes to reveal the yellowish-brown pigment deposits on the outside of skin cells. Pigment deposits also occur in cells of the endothelium (the thin layer of cells that line blood vessels and other tissues), in the sweat glands, and in the membranes below the skin.
Skeletal x rays
X-ray examination is used to detect calcification of the joints. Since many individuals with AKU do not have dark-staining urine, x-ray evidence of osteoarthritis may indicate a need to test for the presence of HGA in the urine. However, osteoarthritis usually affects the smaller joints; whereas ochronosis most often affects the large joints of the hips and shoulders. Spinal x rays may show dense calcification, degeneration, and fusion of the disks of the vertebrae, particularly in the lumbar region of the lower back. Chest x rays are used to assess damage to the valves of the heart.
Physicians may order computerized tomography (CT) scans of the brain and chest or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of affected joints. An electrocardiogram (ECG or EKG) may reveal signs of heart complications resulting from AKU. Kidney problems may be diagnosed by ultrasound, the use of sound waves to obtain images of an organ. Lung function tests and hearing tests may be performed to assess additional complications.
In addition to being a complication of AKU, ochronosis can be acquired. In the past, ochronosis developed from the repeated use of carbolic acid dressings for treating chronic skin ulcers. The prolonged use of the drug quinacrine (atabrine) can cause ochronosis, with pigmentation occurring in many of the same sites as with AKU. Ochronosis can also result from the use of bleaching creams containing hydroquinone. Certain other substances, including phenol, trinitrophenol, quinines, and benzene, can cause ochronosis. However, these forms of ochronosis do not lead to joint disease and, unlike ochronosis from AKU, are reversible.
Treatment and management
The binding of HGA to collagen fibers is irreversible. Treatment of AKU is directed at reducing the deposition of pigment and thereby minimizing arthritis and heart problems in later life.
Often, high doses (about 1 gm per day) of ascorbic acid (vitamin C) are administered to older children and adults with AKU. Ascorbic acid appears to slow the formation of the HGA polymer and decrease the binding of the polymer to connective tissues. Vitamin C reduces the amount of toxic benzoquinone acetic acid in the urine. However, the amount of HGA in the urine does not decrease. Furthermore, vitamin C does not appear to interrupt the progress of the disease.
Sometimes individuals with AKU are placed on lowprotein diets. This limits the intake of phenylalanine and tyrosine from proteins. If the body has lower amounts of phenylalanine and tyrosine to break down, less HGA will be formed. However, both of these amino acids are necessary for making proteins in the body. Furthermore, phenylalanine is an essential amino acid that must be obtained from food, since the human body cannot produce it. Adult males require approximately 2 gm per day of phenylalanine. Phenylalanine also is present in some artificial sweeteners.
Restricting protein intake to no more than the daily protein requirement may be beneficial for children with AKU. Such diets appear to substantially reduce the amount of benzoquinone acetic acid in the urine. In children under the age of 12, low-protein diets significantly reduce the amount of HGA in the urine, as well. However, these diets seem to have little effect on older children and young adults with AKU, and low-protein diets are difficult to maintain. When low-protein diets are prescribed, the levels of amino acids in the blood must be monitored, to assure that there is no deficiency in phenylalanine.
Future drug treatment
The National Institutes of Health are undertaking clinical research studies to better understand the clinical, biochemical, and molecular aspects of AKU. These studies are in preparation for clinical trials of a new drug to treat AKU. It is hoped that this drug will block the production and accumulation of HGA.
There is no cure for AKU. Essentially all individuals with AKU eventually experience arthritic symptoms, particularly arthritis of the hips, knees, and spine. The bone and joint disease may become debilitating by the sixth to eighth decades of life. Furthermore, cardiovascular involvement and ochronotic skin abnormalities are to be expected with AKU.
Despite these difficulties, individuals with AKU have normal life expectancies. Although there is an increased risk of heart attack in later life, most individuals with AKU die of causes unrelated to the disorder.
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AKU Hotline. <http://www.goodnet.com/~ee72478/enable/hotline.htm>.
National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. PO Box 30105, Bethesda, MD 20824-0105. (301) 592-8573. email@example.com. <http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov>.
National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD). Patient Recruitment and Public Liaison Office, Building 61, 10 Cloister Court, Bethesda, MD 20892-4754. (800) 411-1222, (301) 594-9774 (TTY), (866) 411-1010 (TTY). firstname.lastname@example.org. <http://clinicalstudies.info.nih.gov/detail/A_2000-CH-0141.html>.
"Alkaptonuria." AKU Database. <http://www.cib.csic.es/~akudb/alkaptonuria.htm>.
Burkhart, Craig G., and Craig Nathaniel Burkhart. "Ochronosis." Dermatology/Metabolic Diseases. 25 July 2000. <http://www.emedicine.com/DERM/topic476.htm>.
"Clinical, Biochemical, and Molecular Investigations into Alkaptonuria." NIH Clinical Research Studies. Protocol Number: 00-CH-0141. (March 10, 2001). <http://clinicalstudies.info.nih.gov/detail/A_2000-CH-0141.html>.
Medical College of Wisconsin Physicians and Clinics. "Alkaptonuria and Ochronosis." HealthLink. (March 18, 1999). <http://healthlink.mcw.edu/content/article/921733488.html>.
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Margaret Alic, PhD
Table Of Contents
- Homogentisic acid
- Genetic profile
- Early symptoms
- Organ damage
- Visual diagnosis
- Identification of HGA
- Microscopic examination
- Skeletal x rays
- Other procedures
- Acquired ochronosis
- Treatment and management
- Vitamin C
- Dietary restrictions
- Future drug treatment