Krabbe disease is an inherited enzyme deficiency that leads to the loss of myelin, the substance that wraps nerve cells and speeds cell communication. Most affected individuals start to show symptoms before six months of age and have progressive loss of mental and motor function. Death occurs at an average age of 13 months. Other less common forms exist with onset in later childhood or adulthood.
Myelin insulates and protects the nerves in the central and peripheral nervous system. It is essential for efficient nerve cell communication (signals) and body functions such as walking, talking, coordination, and thinking. As nerves grow, myelin is constantly being built, broken down, recycled, and rebuilt. Enzymes break down, or metabolize, fats, carbohydrates, and proteins in the body including the components of myelin.
Individuals with Krabbe disease are lacking the enzyme galactosylceramidase (GALC), which metabolizes a myelin fat component called galactosylceramide and its by-product, psychosine. Without GALC, these substances are not metabolized and accumulate in large globoid cells. For this reason, Krabbe disease is also called globoid cell leukodystrophy. Accumulation of galactosylceramide and psychosine is toxic and leads to the loss of myelin-producing cells and myelin itself. This results in impaired nerve function and the gradual loss of developmental skills such as walking and talking.
Krabbe disease is an autosomal recessive disorder. Affected individuals have two nonfunctional copies of the GALC gene. Parents of an affected child are healthy carriers and therefore have one normal GALC gene and one nonfunctional GALC gene. When both parents are carriers, each child has a 25% chance to inherit Krabbe disease, a 50% chance to be a carrier, and a 25% chance to have two normal GALC genes. The risk is the same for males and females. Brothers and sisters of an affected child with Krabbe disease have a 66% chance of being a carrier.
The GALC gene is located on chromosome 14. Over 70 mutations (gene alterations) known to cause Krabbe disease have been identified. One specific GALC gene deletion accounts for 45% of disease-causing mutations in those with European ancestry and 35% of diseasecausing mutations in those with Mexican ancestry.
Approximately one in every 100,000 infants born in the United States and Europe will develop Krabbe disease. A person with no family history of the condition has a one in 150 chance of being a carrier. Krabbe disease occurs in all countries and ethnic groups but no cases have been reported in the Ashkenazi Jewish population. A Druze community in Northern Israel and two Moslem Arab villages near Jerusalem have an unusually high incidence of Krabbe disease. In these areas, about one person in every six is a carrier.
Signs and symptoms
Ninety percent of individuals with Krabbe disease have the infantile type. These infants usually have normal development in the first few months of life. Before six months of age, they become irritable, stiff, and rigid. They may have trouble eating and may have seizures. Development regresses leading to loss of mental and muscle function. They also lose the ability to see and hear. In the end stages, these children usually cannot move, talk, or eat without a feeding tube.
Ten percent of individuals with Krabbe disease have juvenille or adult type. Children with juvenile type begin having symptoms between three and ten years of age. They gradually lose the ability to walk and think. They may also have paralysis and vision loss. Their symptoms usually progress slower than in the infantile type. Adult Krabbe disease has onset at any time after age 10. Symptoms are more general including weakness, difficulty walking, vision loss, and diminished mental abilities.
There are many tests that can be performed on an individual with symptoms of Krabbe disease. The most specific test is done by measuring the level of GALC enzyme activity in blood cells or skin cells. A person with Krabbe disease has GALC activity levels that are zero to five percent of the normal amount. Individuals with later onset Krabbe disease may have more variable GALC activity levels. This testing is done in specialized laboratories that have experience with this disease.
The fluid of the brain and spinal cord (cerebrospinal fluid) can also be tested to measure the amount of protein. This fluid usually contains very little protein but the protein level is elevated in infantile Krabbe disease. Nerve-conduction velocity tests can be performed to measure the speed at which the nerve cells transmit their signals. Individuals with Krabbe disease will have slowed nerve conduction. Brain imaging studies such as computerized tomography (CT scan) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) are used to get pictures from inside the brain. These pictures will show loss of myelin in individuals with Krabbe disease.
DNA testing for GALC mutations is not generally used to make a diagnosis in someone with symptoms but it can be performed after diagnosis. If an affected person has identifiable known mutations, other family members can be offered DNA testing to find out if they are carriers. This is helpful since the GALC enzyme test is not always accurate in identifying healthy carriers of Krabbe disease.
If an unborn baby is at risk to inherit Krabbe disease, prenatal diagnosis is available. Fetal tissue can be obtained through chorionic villus sampling (CVS) or amniocentesis. Cells obtained from either procedure can be used to measure GALC enzyme activity levels. If both parents have identified known GALC gene mutations, DNA testing can also be performed on the fetal cells to determine if the fetus inherited one, two, or no GALC gene mutations.
Some centers offer preimplantation diagnosis if both parents have known GALC gene mutations. In-vitro fertilization (IVF) is used to create embryos in the laboratory. DNA testing is performed on one or two cells taken from the early embryo. Only embryos that did not inherit Krabbe disease are implanted into the mother's womb. This is an option for parents who want a biological child but do not wish to face the possibility of abortion of an affected pregnancy.
Treatment and management
Once a child with infantile Krabbe disease starts to show symptoms, there is little effective treatment. Supportive care can be given to keep the child as comfortable as possible and to counteract the rigid muscle tone. Medications can be given to control seizures. When a child can no longer eat normally, feeding tubes can be placed to provide nourishment.
Affected children who are diagnosed before developing symptoms (such as through prenatal diagnosis) can undergo bone marrow transplant or stem cell transplant. The goal of these procedures is to destroy the bone marrow which produces the blood and immune system cells. After the destruction of the bone marrow, cells from a healthy donor are injected. If successful, the healthy cells travel to the bone marrow and reproduce. Some children have received these transplants and had a slowing of their symptom's progression or even improvement of their symptoms. However, these procedures are not always successful and research is being done in order to reduce complications.
Scientists are also researching gene therapy for Krabbe disease. This involves introducing a normal GALC gene into the cells of the affected child. The goal is for the cells to integrate the new GALC gene into its DNA and copy it, producing functional GALC enzyme. This is still in research stages and is not being performed clinically.
Prognosis for infantile and juvenile Krabbe disease is very poor. Individuals with infantile type usually die at an average age of 13 months. Death usually occurs within a year after the child shows symptoms and is diagnosed. Children with juvenile type may survive longer after diagnosis but death usually occurs within a few years. Adult Krabbe disease is more variable and difficult to predict but death usually occurs two to seven years after diagnosis.
Wenger, D.A., et al. "Krabbe Disease: Genetic Aspects and Progress Toward Therapy." Molecular Genetics and Metabolism 70(2000):1-9.
Hunter's Hope Foundation. PO Box 643, Orchard Park, NY 14127. (877) 984-HOPE. Fax: (716) 667-1212. <http://www.huntershope.org>.
United Leukodystrophy Foundation. 2304 Highland Dr., Sycamore, IL 60178. (815) 895-3211 or (800) 728-5483. Fax: (815) 895-2432. <http://www.ulf.org>.
Wenger, David A. "Krabbe Disease." GeneClinics. <http://www.geneclinics.org/profiles/krabbe/details.html>.
Amie Stanley, MS