is a genetic disorder
in which copper
builds up in the body. Symptoms are typically related to the brain
. Liver related symptoms include vomiting
, weakness, fluid build up in the abdomen
, swelling of the legs
, yellowish skin
, and itchiness
. Brain related symptoms include tremor
s, muscle stiffness, trouble speaking, personality changes, anxiety, and seeing or hearing things that others do not
Wilson's disease is an autosomal recessive
condition due to a mutation
in the Wilson disease protein
. For a person to be affected they must inherit
an affected copy of the gene from each parent. Diagnosis may be difficult and often involves a combination of blood tests, urine tests, and a liver biopsy
. Genetic testing
may be used to screen family members of those affected.
Wilson's disease is typically treated with dietary changes and medication. Dietary changes involve eating a low copper diet and not using copper cookware. Medications used include chelating agents
such as trientine
and zinc supplements
. Complications of Wilson's disease can include liver failure
, liver cancer
, and kidney problems
. A liver transplant
may be helpful in those in whom other treatments are not effective or if liver failure occurs.
Wilson's disease occurs in about 1 in 30,000 people. Symptoms usually begin between the ages of 5 and 35 years. Males and females are equally affected. It was first described in 1854 by Friedrich Theodor von Frerichs
and is named after Samuel Wilson
Signs and symptoms
The main sites of copper accumulation are the liver
and the brain
, and consequently liver disease and neuropsychiatric symptoms are the main features that lead to diagnosis. People with liver problems tend to come to medical attention earlier, generally as children or teenagers, than those with neurological and psychiatric symptoms, who tend to be in their twenties or older. Some are identified only because relatives have been diagnosed with Wilson's disease; many of these, when tested, turn out to have been experiencing symptoms of the condition but have not received a diagnosis.
Liver disease may present itself as tiredness
, increased bleeding tendency or confusion (due to hepatic encephalopathy
) and portal hypertension
. The latter, a condition in which the pressure in the portal vein
is markedly increased, leads to esophageal varices
, blood vessels in the esophagus
that may bleed in a life-threatening fashion, as well as enlargement of the spleen ( splenomegaly
) and accumulation of fluid in the abdominal cavity ( ascites
). On examination, signs of chronic liver disease such as spider angioma
ta (small distended blood vessels, usually on the chest) may be observed. Chronic active hepatitis
has caused cirrhosis
of the liver in most by the time they develop symptoms. While most people with cirrhosis have an increased risk of hepatocellular carcinoma
(liver cancer), this risk is relatively very low in Wilson's disease.
About 5% of all people are diagnosed only when they develop fulminant acute liver failure
, often in the context of a hemolytic anemia
(anemia due to the destruction of red blood cells). This leads to abnormalities in protein production (identified by deranged coagulation
) and metabolism by the liver. The deranged protein metabolism leads to the accumulation of waste products such as ammonia
in the bloodstream. When these irritate the brain
, the person develops hepatic encephalopathy
(confusion, coma, seizures and finally life-threatening swelling of the brain
About half the people with Wilson's disease have neurological or psychiatric symptoms. Most initially have mild cognitive deterioration and clumsiness, as well as changes in behavior. Specific neurological symptoms usually then follow, often in the form of parkinsonism
(cogwheel rigidity, bradykinesia
or slowed movements and a lack of balance are the most common parkinsonian features) with or without a typical hand tremor
, masked facial expressions, slurred speech, ataxia
(lack of coordination) or dystonia
(twisting and repetitive movements of part of the body). Seizure
s and migraine
appear to be more common in Wilson's disease. A characteristic tremor described as "wing-beating tremor" is encountered in many people with Wilson's; this is absent at rest but can be provoked by extending the arms.
Cognition can also be affected in Wilson's disease. This comes in two, not mutually exclusive, categories: frontal lobe disorder
(may present as impulsivity
, impaired judgement, promiscuity
and executive dysfunction
with poor planning and decision making) and subcortical dementia
(may present as slow thinking, memory loss and executive dysfunction
, without signs of aphasia
). It is suggested that these cognitive involvements are related and closely linked to psychiatric manifestations of the disease.
Psychiatric problems due to Wilson's disease may include behavioral changes, depression
, anxiety disorders
, and psychosis
. Psychiatric symptoms are commonly seen in conjunction with neurological symptoms and are rarely manifested on their own. These symptoms are often poorly defined and can sometimes be attributed to other causes. Because of this, diagnosis of Wilson's disease is rarely made when only psychiatric symptoms are present.
Other organ systems
Medical conditions have been linked with copper accumulation in Wilson's disease:
- Eyes: Kayser–Fleischer rings (KF rings), a pathognomonic sign, may be visible in the cornea of the eyes, either directly or on slit lamp examination as deposits of copper in a ring around the cornea. They are due to copper deposition in Descemet's membrane. They do not occur in all people with Wilson's disease. Wilson's disease is also associated with sunflower cataracts exhibited by brown or green pigmentation of the anterior and posterior lens capsule. Neither cause significant visual loss. KF rings occur in approximately 66% of diagnosed cases (more often in those with neurological symptoms rather than with liver problems).
- Kidneys: renal tubular acidosis (Type 2), a disorder of bicarbonate handling by the proximal tubules leads to nephrocalcinosis (calcium accumulation in the kidneys), a weakening of bones (due to calcium and phosphate loss), and occasionally aminoaciduria (loss of essential amino acids needed for protein synthesis).
- Heart: cardiomyopathy (weakness of the heart muscle) is a rare but recognized problem in Wilson's disease; it may lead to heart failure (fluid accumulation due to decreased pump function) and cardiac arrhythmias (episodes of irregular and/or abnormally fast or slow heart beat).
- Hormones: hypoparathyroidism (failure of the parathyroid glands leading to low calcium levels), infertility, and habitual abortion.
The Wilson's disease gene (ATP7B
) has been mapped to chromosome 13
(13q14.3) and is expressed primarily in the liver, kidney
, and placenta
. The gene codes for a P-type
(cation transport enzyme) ATPase
that transports copper into bile
and incorporates it into ceruloplasmin
. Mutations can be detected in 90% of cases. Most (60%) are homozygous
mutations (two abnormal copies), and 30% have only one abnormal copy. Ten percent have no detectable mutation.
Although 300 mutations of ATP7B
have been described, in most populations the cases of Wilson's disease are due to a small number of mutations specific for that population. For instance, in Western populations the H1069Q mutation (replacement of a histidine
by a glutamine
at position 1069 in the protein) is present in 37–63% of cases, while in China this mutation is very uncommon and R778L ( arginine
at 778) is found more often. Relatively little is known about the relative impact of various mutations, although the H1069Q mutation seems to predict later onset and predominantly neurological problems, according to some studies.
A normal variation in the PRNP
gene can modify the course of the disease by delaying the age of onset and affecting the type of symptoms that develop. This gene produces prion protein
, which is active in the brain and other tissues and also appears to be involved in transporting copper. A role for the ApoE
gene was initially suspected but could not be confirmed.
The condition is inherited in an autosomal recessive pattern. In order to inherit it, both of the parents of an individual must carry an affected gene. Most have no family history of the condition. People with only one abnormal gene are called carriers (heterozygotes) and may have mild, but medically insignificant, abnormalities of copper metabolism.
Wilson's disease is the most common from a group of hereditary diseases that cause copper overload in the liver. All can cause cirrhosis
at a young age. The other members of the group are Indian childhood cirrhosis
(ICC), endemic Tyrolean infantile cirrhosis and idiopathic copper toxicosis. These are not related to ATP7B
mutations: for example, ICC has been linked to mutations in the KRT8
and the KRT18
Copper is needed by the body for a number of functions
, predominantly as a cofactor
for a number of enzymes such as ceruloplasmin, cytochrome c oxidase
, dopamine β-hydroxylase
, superoxide dismutase
Copper enters the body through the digestive tract
. A transporter protein on the cells of the small bowel
, copper membrane transporter 1
(Ctr1; SLC31A1), carries copper inside the cells, where some is bound to metallothionein
and part is carried by ATOX1
to an organelle known as the trans-Golgi network
. Here, in response to rising concentrations of copper, an enzyme called ATP7A
releases copper into the portal vein
to the liver. Liver cells also carry the CMT1 protein, and metallothionein and ATOX1 bind it inside the cell, but here it is ATP7B that links copper to ceruloplasmin
and releases it into the bloodstream, as well as removing excess copper by secreting it into bile
. Both functions of ATP7B are impaired in Wilson's disease. Copper accumulates in the liver tissue; ceruloplasmin is still secreted, but in a form that lacks copper (termed apoceruloplasmin) and is rapidly degraded in the bloodstream.
When the amount of copper in the liver overwhelms the proteins that normally bind it, it causes oxidative damage through a process known as Fenton chemistry
; this damage eventually leads to chronic active hepatitis
(deposition of connective tissue) and cirrhosis
. The liver also releases copper into the bloodstream that is not bound to ceruloplasmin. This free copper precipitates throughout the body but particularly in the kidneys, eyes and brain. In the brain, most copper is deposited in the basal ganglia
, particularly in the putamen
and globus pallidus
(together called the lenticular nucleus
); these areas normally participate in the coordination of movement as well as playing a significant role in neurocognitive processes such as the processing of stimuli and mood regulation. Damage to these areas, again by Fenton chemistry, produces the neuropsychiatric symptoms seen in Wilson's disease.
It is not clear why Wilson's disease causes hemolysis, but various lines of evidence suggest that a high level of free (non- ceruloplasmin
bound) copper has a direct effect on either oxidation of hemoglobin
, inhibition of energy-supplying enzymes in the red blood cell
, or direct damage to the cell membrane
Wilson's disease may be suspected on the basis of any of the symptoms mentioned above, or when a close relative has been found to have Wilson's. Most have slightly abnormal liver function tests
such as a raised aspartate transaminase
, alanine transaminase
level. If the liver damage is significant, albumin
may be decreased due to an inability of damaged liver cells to produce this protein; likewise, the prothrombin time
(a test of coagulation
) may be prolonged as the liver is unable to produce proteins known as clotting factors. Alkaline phosphatase
levels are relatively low in those with Wilson's-related acute liver failure. If there are neurological symptoms, magnetic resonance imaging
(MRI) of the brain is usually performed; this shows hyperintensities
in the part of the brain called the basal ganglia
in the T2
setting. MRI may also demonstrate the characteristic "face of the giant panda"
There is no totally reliable test for Wilson's disease, but levels of ceruloplasmin
and copper in the blood, as well of the amount of copper excreted in urine during a 24-hour period, are together used to form an impression of the amount of copper in the body. The gold standard
—or most ideal test—is a liver biopsy
Levels of ceruloplasmin
are abnormally low (
The combination of neurological symptoms, Kayser–Fleischer rings and a low ceruloplasmin level is considered sufficient for the diagnosis of Wilson's disease. In many cases, however, further tests are needed.
Serum and urine copper
Serum copper is low, which may seem paradoxical given that Wilson's disease is a disease of copper excess. However, 95% of plasma copper is carried by ceruloplasmin which is often low in Wilson's disease. Urine copper is elevated in Wilson's disease and is collected for 24 hours in a bottle with a copper-free liner. Levels above 100 μg/24h (1.6 μmol/24h) confirm Wilson's disease, and levels above 40 μg/24h (0.6 μmol/24h) are strongly indicative. High urine copper levels are not unique to Wilson's disease; they are sometimes observed in autoimmune hepatitis
and in cholestasis
(any disease obstructing the flow of bile from the liver to the small bowel).
In children, the penicillamine
test may be used. A 500 mg oral dose of penicillamine is administered, and urine collected for 24 hours. If this contains more than 1600 μg (25 μmol), it is a reliable indicator of Wilson's disease. This test has not been validated in adults.
Once other investigations have indicated Wilson's disease, the ideal test is the removal of a small amount of liver tissue through a liver biopsy
. This is assessed microscopically for the degree of steatosis
, and histochemistry
and quantification of copper are used to measure the severity of the copper accumulation. A level of 250 μg
of copper per gram of dried liver tissue confirms Wilson's disease. Occasionally, lower levels of copper are found; in that case, the combination of the biopsy findings with all other tests could still lead to a formal diagnosis of Wilson's.
In the earlier stages of the disease, the biopsy typically shows steatosis
(deposition of fatty material), increased glycogen
in the nucleus
, and areas of necrosis
(cell death). In more advanced disease, the changes observed are quite similar to those seen in autoimmune hepatitis, such as infiltration by inflammatory
cells, piecemeal necrosis and fibrosis (scar tissue). In advanced disease, finally, cirrhosis is the main finding. In acute liver failure, degeneration of the liver cells and collapse of the liver tissue architecture is seen, typically on a background of cirrhotic changes. Histochemical methods for detecting copper are inconsistent and unreliable, and taken alone are regarded as insufficient to establish a diagnosis.
Mutation analysis of the ATP7B
gene, as well as other genes linked to copper accumulation in the liver, may be performed. Once a mutation is confirmed, it is possible to screen family members for the disease as part of clinical genetics
family counseling. Regional distributions of genes associated with Wilson's disease are important to follow, as this can help clinicians design appropriate screening strategies. Since mutations of the WD gene vary between populations, research and genetic testing done in countries like the USA or United Kingdom can pose problems as they tend to have more mixed populations.
In general, a diet low in copper-containing foods is recommended with the avoidance of mushroom
, dried fruit
, liver, and shellfish
Medical treatments are available for Wilson's disease. Some increase the removal of copper from the body, while others prevent the absorption of copper from the diet.
is the first treatment used. This binds copper ( chelation
) and leads to excretion of copper in the urine. Hence, monitoring of the amount of copper in the urine can be done to ensure a sufficiently high dose is taken. Penicillamine is not without problems: about 20% experience a side effect or complication of penicillamine treatment, such as drug-induced lupus
(causing joint pains and a skin rash) or myasthenia
(a nerve condition leading to muscle weakness). In those who presented with neurological symptoms, almost half experience a paradoxical worsening in their symptoms. While this phenomenon is observed in other treatments for Wilson's, it is usually taken as an indication for discontinuing penicillamine and commencing second-line treatment. Those intolerant to penicillamine may instead be commenced on trientine hydrochloride
, which also has chelating properties. Some recommend trientine as first-line treatment, but experience with penicillamine is more extensive. A further agent, under clinical investigation by Wilson Therapeutics
, with known activity in Wilson's disease is tetrathiomolybdate
. This is regarded as experimental, though some studies have shown a beneficial effect.
Once all results have returned to normal, zinc
(usually in the form of a zinc acetate
prescription called Galzin) may be used instead of chelators to maintain stable copper levels in the body. Zinc stimulates metallothionein
, a protein in gut cells that binds copper and prevents their absorption and transport to the liver. Zinc therapy is continued unless symptoms recur or if the urinary excretion of copper increases.
In rare cases where none of the oral treatments are effective, especially in severe neurological disease, dimercaprol
(British anti-Lewisite) is occasionally necessary. This treatment is injected intramuscularly
(into a muscle) every few weeks and has unpleasant side effects such as pain.
People who are asymptomatic
(for instance, those diagnosed through family screening or only as a result of abnormal test results) are generally treated, as the copper accumulation may cause long-term damage in the future. It is unclear whether these people are best treated with penicillamine or zinc acetate.
Physical and occupational therapies
and occupational therapy are beneficial for patients with the neurologic form of the disease. The copper chelating treatment may take up to six months to start working, and these therapies can assist in coping with ataxia
, and tremors, as well as preventing the development of contracture
s that can result from dystonia.
is an effective cure for Wilson's disease but is used only in particular scenarios because of the risks and complications associated with the procedure. It is used mainly in people with fulminant
liver failure who fail to respond to medical treatment or in those with advanced chronic liver disease. Liver transplantation is avoided in severe neuropsychiatric illness, in which its benefit has not been demonstrated.
Left untreated, Wilson's disease tends to become progressively worse and is eventually fatal. With early detection and treatment, most of those affected can live relatively normal lives. Liver and neurologic damage that occurs prior to treatment may improve, but it is often permanent.
The disease bears the name of the British
physician Samuel Alexander Kinnier Wilson
(1878–1937), a neurologist
who described the condition, including the pathological changes in the brain and liver, in 1912. Wilson's work had been predated by, and drew on, reports from German neurologist Carl Westphal
(in 1883), who termed it "pseudosclerosis"; by the British neurologist William Gowers
(in 1888); and by Adolph Strümpell
(in 1898), who noted hepatic cirrhosis. Neuropathologist John Nathaniel Cumings made the link with copper accumulation in both the liver and the brain in 1948. The occurrence of hemolysis was noted in 1967.
Cumings, and simultaneously the New Zealand neurologist Derek Denny-Brown
, working in the United States, first reported effective treatment with metal chelator British anti-Lewisite
in 1951. This treatment had to be injected but was one of the first therapies available in the field of neurology, a field that classically was able to observe and diagnose but had few treatments to offer. The first effective oral chelation agent, penicillamine
, was discovered in 1956 by British neurologist John Walshe. In 1982, Walshe also introduced trientine, and was the first to develop tetrathiomolybdate for clinical use. Zinc acetate therapy initially made its appearance in the Netherlands, where physicians Schouwink and Hoogenraad used it in 1961 and in the 1970s, respectively, but it was further developed later by Brewer and colleagues at the University of Michigan
The genetic basis of Wilson's disease and linkage to ATP7B
mutations was elucidated in the 1980s and 1990s by several research groups.
Hereditary copper accumulation has been described in Bedlington Terrier
s, where it generally only affects the liver. It is due to mutations in the COMMD1
) gene. Despite this findings, COMMD1
mutations could not be detected in humans with non-Wilsonian copper accumulation states (such as Indian childhood cirrhosis
) to explain their genetic origin.