Galactosemia is an inherited disease in which the transformation of galactose to glucose is blocked, allowing galactose to increase to toxic levels in the body. If galactosemia is untreated, high levels of galactose cause vomiting, diarrhea, lethargy, low blood sugar, brain damage, jaundice, liver enlargement, cataracts, susceptibility to infection, and death.
Galactosemia is a rare but potentially life-threatening disease that results from the inability to metabolize galactose. Serious consequences from galactosemia can be prevented by screening newborns at birth with a simple blood test.
Galactosemia is an inborn error of metabolism. "Metabolism" refers to all chemical reactions that take place in living organisms. A metabolic pathway is a series of reactions where the product of each step in the series is the starting material for the next step. Enzymes are the chemicals that help the reactions occur. Their ability to function depends on their structure, and their structure is determined by the deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) sequence of the genes that encode them. Inborn errors of metabolism are caused by mutations in these genes which do not allow the enzymes to function properly.
Sugars are sometimes called "the energy molecules," and galactose and glucose are both sugars. For galactose to be utilized for energy, it must be transformed into something that can enter the metabolic pathway that converts glucose into energy (plus water and carbon dioxide). This is important for infants because they typically get most of their nutrient energy from milk, which contains a high level of galactose. Each molecule of lactose, the major sugar constituent of milk, is made up of a molecule of galactose and a molecule of glucose, and so galactose makes up 20% of the energy source of a typical infant's diet.
Three enzymes are required to convert galactose into glucose-1-phosphate (a phosphorylated glucose that can enter the metabolic pathway that turns glucose into energy). Each of these three enzymes is encoded by a separate gene. If any of these enzymes fail to function, galactose build-up and galactosemia result. Thus, there are three types of galactosemia with a different gene responsible for each.
Every cell in a person's body has two copies of each gene. Each of the forms of galactosemia is inherited as a recessive trait, which means that galactosemia is only present in individuals with two mutated copies of one of the three genes. This also means that carriers, with only one copy of a gene mutation, will not be aware that they are carrying a mutation (unless they have had a genetic test), as it is masked by the normal gene they also carry and the fact that they have no symptoms of the disease. For each step in the conversion of galactose to glucose, if only one of the two copies of the gene controlling that step is normal (i.e. for carriers), enough functional enzyme is made so that the pathway is not blocked at that step. If a person has galactosemia, both copies of the gene coding for one of the enzymes required to convert glucose to galactose are defective and the pathway becomes blocked. If two carriers of the same defective gene have children, the chance of any of their children getting galactosemia (the chance of a child getting two copies of the defective gene) is 25% (one in four) for each pregnancy.
Galactosemia I (also called classic galactosemia), the first form to be discovered, is caused by abnormalities in both copies of the gene that codes for an enzyme called
Newborns with galactosemia I appear normal at birth, but begin to develop symptoms after they are given milk for the first time. Symptoms include vomiting, diarrhea, lethargy (sluggishness or fatigue), low blood glucose, jaundice (a yellowing of the skin and eyes), enlarged liver, protein and amino acids in the urine, and susceptibility to infection, especially from gram negative bacteria. Cataracts (a grayish white film on the eye lens) can appear within a few days after birth. People with galactosemia frequently have symptoms as they grow older even though they have been given a galactose-free diet. These symptoms include speech disorders, cataracts, ovarian atrophy and infertility in females, learning disabilities, and behavioral problems.
Galactosemia II is caused by changes in both copies of the gene that codes for an enzyme called galactokinase (GALK). The frequency of occurrence of galactosemia II is about one in 100,000–155,000 births.
Galactosemia II is less harmful than galactosemia I. Babies born with galactosemia II will develop cataracts at an early age unless they are given a galactose-free diet. They do not generally suffer from liver damage or neurologic disturbances.
Galactosemia III is caused by changes in the gene that codes for an enzyme called uridyl diphosphogalactose-4-epimerase (GALE). This form of galactosemia is very rare.
There are two forms of galactosemia III: a severe form, which is exceedingly rare, and a benign form. The benign form has no symptoms and requires no special diet. However, newborns with galactosemia III, including the benign form, have high levels of galactose-1-phosphate that show up on the initial screenings for elevated galactose and galactose-1-phosphate. This situation illustrates one aspect of the importance of follow-up enzyme function tests. Tests showing normal levels of GALT and GALK allow people affected by the benign form of galactosemia III to enjoy a normal diet.
The severe form has symptoms similar to those of galactosemia I, but with more severe neurological problems, including seizures. Only two cases of this rare form had been reported as of 1997.
The newborn screening test for classic galactosemia is quick and straightforward; all but three states require testing on all newborns. Blood from a baby who is two to three days old is usually screened for high levels of galactose and galactose-1-phosphate. If either of these compounds is elevated, further tests are performed to find out which enzymes (GALT, GALK, or GALE) are present or missing. DNA testing may also be performed to confirm the diagnosis.
If there is a strong suspicion that a baby has galactosemia, galactose is removed from their diet right away. In this case, an initial screen for galactose or galactose-1-phosphate will be meaningless. In the absence of galactose in the diet, this test will be negative whether the baby has galactosemia or not. In this case, tests to measure enzyme levels must be given to find out if the suspected baby is indeed galactosemic.
In addition, galactosemic babies who are refusing milk or vomiting will not have elevated levels of galactose or galactose phosphate, and their condition will not be detected by the initial screen. Any baby with symptoms of galactosemia (for example, vomiting) should be given enzyme tests.
Treatment and management
Galactosemia I and II are treated by removing galactose from the diet. Since galactose is a break-down product of lactose, the primary sugar constituent of milk, this means all milk and foods containing milk products must be totally eliminated. Other foods like legumes, organ meats, and processed meats also contain considerable galactose and must be avoided. Pills that use lactose as a filler must also be avoided. Soy-based and casein hydrolysate-based formulas are recommended for infants with galactosemia.
Treatment of the severe form of galactosemia III with a galactose-restricted diet has been tried, but this disorder is so rare that the long-term effects of this treatment are unknown.
Early detection in the newborn period is the key to controlling symptoms. Long-term effects in untreated babies include severe mental retardation, cirrhosis of the liver, and death. About 75% of the untreated babies die within the first two weeks of life. On the other hand, with treatment, a significant proportion of people with galactosemia I can lead nearly normal lives, although speech defects, learning disabilities, and behavioral problems are common. In addition, cataracts due to galactosemia II can be completely prevented by a galactose-free diet.
Since most people are unaware that they are carriers of a gene mutation causing galactosemia, the disease is usually detected on a newborn screening test. For couples with a previous child with galactosemia, prenatal diagnosis is available to determine whether a pregnancy is similarly affected. Families who have a child diagnosed with galactosemia can have DNA testing, which would enable other more distant relatives to determine their carrier status. Prospective parents can then use that information to conduct family planning or to prepare for a child with special circumstances. Children born with galactosemia should be put on a special diet right away to reduce the symptoms and complications of the disease.
Ng, Won G., Thomas F. Roe, and George N. Donnell. "Carbohydrate Metabolism." In Emery and Rimoin's Principles and Practice of Medical Genetics, edited by David L. Rimoin, J. Michael Connor, and Reed E. Pyeritz. 3rd. ed. New York: Churchill Livingstone, 1998.
Association for Neuro-Metabolic Disorders. 5223 Brookfield Lane, Sylvania, OH 43560. (419) 885-1497.
Metabolic Information Network. PO Box 670847, Dallas, TX 75367-0847. (214) 696-2188 or (800) 945-2188.
Parents of Galactosemic Children, Inc. 2148 Bryton Dr., Powell OH 43065. <http://www.galactosemia.org/index.htm>.
"GeneCards: Human Genes, Proteins and Diseases." <http://bioinfo.weizmann.ac.il/cards/>.
"Vermont Newborn Screening Program: Galactosemia." <http://www.vtmednet.org/~m145037/vhgi_mem/nbsman/galacto.htm>.
Amy Vance, MS, CGC