Years published: 2005, 2012, 2015, 2018, 2023
NORD gratefully acknowledges M. Mahmood Hussain, PhD, Lic. Med., FAHA, Distinguished Professor, Endowed Chair, and Director, Diabetes and Obesity Research Center, Department of Foundations of Medicine, New York University Long Island School of Medicine, for assistance in the preparation of this report.
Abetalipoproteinemia is a rare inherited disorder affecting fat absorption by the intestine and mobilization by the liver. Inability to absorb fat results in deficiencies of lipids and various essential vitamins. Affected individuals experience progressive neurological deterioration, muscle weakness, difficulty walking and blood abnormalities including a condition in which the red blood cells are malformed (acanthocytosis) resulting in low levels of circulating red blood cells (anemia). Affected individuals may also develop degeneration of the retina of the eyes potentially resulting in loss of vision, a condition known as retinitis pigmentosa. Abetalipoproteinemia is inherited in an autosomal recessive pattern and is caused by changes (mutations or variants) in the microsomal triglyceride transfer protein (MTTP) gene.
Abetalipoproteinemia was first reported in the medical literature by doctors Bassen and Kornzweig in 1950 and is also known as Bassen-Kornzweig syndrome. The disorder is sometimes classified as a neuroacanthocytosis syndrome, which refers to a group of disorders characterized by spiky or burr-shaped red blood cells (acanthocytosis) and neurological disorders, especially movement disorders.
Individuals with abetalipoproteinemia may experience a wide variety of symptoms affecting various parts of the body including the gastrointestinal tract, neurological system, eyes and blood.
Affected infants often present with symptoms relating to gastrointestinal disease, which occur secondary to poor fat absorption. Such symptoms include pale, bulky foul-smelling stools (steatorrhea), diarrhea, vomiting and swelling (distension) of the abdomen. Affected infants often fail to gain weight and grow at the expected rate (failure to thrive). These symptoms result from poor absorption of fat from the diet. In addition to poor fat absorption, fat-soluble vitamins such as vitamins A, E, and K are also poorly absorbed potentially resulting in fat-soluble vitamin deficiency. Further, patients do not have any apoB-containing lipoproteins in their plasma, and consequently they have very low levels of triglycerides, cholesterol, phospholipids and ceramides. Thus, lipids and fat-soluble vitamins are inadequately transported throughout the blood stream. Some patients may also have reduced non-apoB-containing lipoproteins (high density lipoproteins) or apoA1 levels in their plasma.
Between the ages of 2 and 20 years, a variety of neurological complications occur that resemble spinocerebellar degeneration, a general term for a group of disorders characterized by progressive impairment of the ability to coordinate voluntary movements due to degeneration of certain structures in the brain (cerebellar ataxia). Ataxia results in a lack of coordination and, eventually, difficulty in controlling the range of voluntary movement (dysmetria). Additional neurological symptoms include loss of deep tendon reflexes such as at the kneecap, difficulty speaking (dysarthria), tremors, motor tics and muscle weakness. Intelligence is usually normal, but developmental delays or intellectual disability has been reported.
In some people, the damage or malfunction of the peripheral nervous system (peripheral neuropathy) may occur. The peripheral nervous system contains all the nerves outside of the central nervous system. The associated symptoms can vary greatly from one person to another but can include weakness of the muscles of the arms and legs or abnormal sensations such as tingling (paresthesias), burning or numbness.
Some individuals with abetalipoproteinemia may develop skeletal abnormalities including backward curvature (lordosis) or backward and sideways curvature of the spine (kyphoscoliosis), a highly arched foot (pes cavus) or clubfoot. These skeletal abnormalities may result from muscle imbalances during crucial stages of bone development. Eventually, affected individuals may be unable to stand or to walk unaided due to progressive neurological and skeletal abnormalities.
Some affected individuals may develop a rare eye condition called retinitis pigmentosa in which progressive degeneration of the nerve-rich membrane lining the eyes (retina) results in tunnel vision, loss of color vision, night blindness, and loss of peripheral vision. Affected individuals may eventually develop loss of visual acuity. Retinitis pigmentosa occurs most often around the age of 10 years and may be due to vitamin A and/or E deficiency. If left untreated, visual acuity may deteriorate to virtual blindness by the fourth decade of life.
Less often, additional symptoms that affect the eyes have been reported including rapid, involuntary eye movements (nystagmus), irregular concentric and some fine radial streaks (algioid streaks), droopy upper eyelid (ptosis), crossed eyes (strabismus), unequal size of the pupils (anisocoria) and weakness or paralysis of muscles that control eye movements (ophthalmoplegia).
Individuals with abetalipoproteinemia may also have blood abnormalities including a condition called acanthocytosis in which deformed (i.e., burr-shaped) red blood cells (acanthocytes) are present in the body. Acanthocytosis may result in low levels of circulating red blood cells (anemia). Anemia may result in tiredness, increased need for sleep, weakness, lightheadedness, dizziness, irritability, palpitations, headaches and pale skin color. Additional blood abnormalities may be due to vitamin K deficiency. Blood clotting factor levels may be reduced resulting in bleeding tendencies such as severe gastrointestinal bleeding.
Patients may have fatty liver, which can cause liver damage. In rare cases, fibrosis or scarring of the liver (cirrhosis) has also been reported.
Abetalipoproteinemia is caused by changes (mutations or variants) in the MTTP gene and is inherited as an autosomal recessive genetic condition. Genetic diseases are determined by two alleles, one received from the father and one from the mother. An allele refers to one of two or more alternate forms of a particular gene.
Recessive genetic disorders occur when an individual inherits two abnormal alleles for the same trait from each parent. If an individual receives one normal allele and one allele for the disease, the person will be a carrier for the disease, but usually will not show symptoms. When both parents are carriers, then the risk of an affected child is 25%. The risk to have a child who is a carrier like the parents is 50% with each pregnancy. The chance for a child to receive normal genes from both parents and be genetically normal for that particular trait is 25%.
All individuals carry some abnormal genes. Parents who are close relatives have a higher chance than unrelated parents of both carrying the same altered gene. Some individuals with abetalipoproteinemia have had parents who were blood relatives (consanguineous). This increases the risk of having children with a recessive genetic disorder.
The MTTP gene contains instructions for producing (encoding) a protein known as microsomal triglyceride transfer protein (MTTP or MTP). This protein is required for the proper assembly and secretion of apoB-containing lipoproteins in the liver and intestines. Variants in the MTTP gene lead to low levels of functional MTP, which in turn, hinders the liver and intestines from making and secreting apoB-containing lipoproteins. This, in turn, results in the inability to properly absorb and transport fats and fat-soluble vitamins throughout the body. Therefore, a deficiency in MTP results in the absence of lipoproteins such as very low-density lipoproteins (VLDLs), low density lipoproteins (LDLs) and chylomicrons in the blood. Lipoproteins are macromolecular complexes consisting of lipids and proteins. These lipid and protein complexes act as transporters that carry fats and fat-soluble vitamins (e.g., vitamin E) throughout the body. The symptoms of abetalipoproteinemia are caused by the lack of these apoB-containing lipoproteins in the plasma and fat-soluble vitamin deficiency.
Recent research has determined that MTP is also involved in the maturation of a family of proteins known as CD1, which are involved in lipid antigen-presentation to immune cells. MTP has also been shown to modulate fat hydrolysis in adipose tissue by inhibiting adipose triglyceride lipase. More research is necessary to determine the complete functions of the MTP protein and the exact underlying mechanisms that cause disease in abetalipoproteinemia.
Additionally, several studies have shown that MTP is expressed in the heart and is involved in exporting lipids out of the heart. Low levels of MTP may lead to fat accumulation in the heart and affect heart function.
The exact prevalence and incidence of abetalipoproteinemia is unknown, but it is estimated to affect less than 1 in 1,000,000 people in the general population. Abetalipoproteinemia affects both males and females. There are no known racial or ethnic preferences for the disorder. Abetalipoproteinemia is more prevalent in populations with a high incidence of consanguineous marriages. Symptoms usually become apparent during infancy.
A diagnosis of abetalipoproteinemia is based upon identification of characteristic symptoms, a detailed patient history, a thorough clinical evaluation and a variety of specialized tests including tests to measure lipids (triglyceride and cholesterol) and apoB-containing lipoproteins in the plasma, determine the form and structure (morphology) of red blood cells and an eye (ophthalmological) exam.
Blood tests will detect low levels of both lipids, such as cholesterol and triglycerides, and lipid-soluble vitamins such as A, E, and K. ApoB-containing lipoproteins, such as chylomicrons or very low-density lipoproteins, are not detectable in the plasma.
The identification of malformed red blood cells (acanthocytosis) may also be detected by blood tests.
A complete neurological assessment, an eye examination, an endoscopy and a liver (hepatic) ultrasound may be performed to evaluate the presence of potentially associated symptoms.
Molecular genetic testing to detect pathogenic variants in the MTTP gene is available to confirm the diagnosis.
The treatment of abetalipoproteinemia is directed toward the specific symptoms that are apparent in each individual. Treatment may require the coordinated efforts of a team of specialists. Neurologists, liver specialists (hepatologists), eye specialists (ophthalmologists), specialists in the study of fats (lipidologists), gastroenterologists, nutritionists and other healthcare professionals may need to plan an affected child’s treatment systematically, comprehensively and collaboratively. Patients should be closely monitored every 6-12 months. Neurological and eye exams should be performed routinely to measure any ophthalmological or neurological deteriorations. Further, amino transaminases in the blood should be measured every year to determine if there is liver damage. Hepatic ultrasound can be performed to detect the presence of fatty liver. Echocardiography should be performed every three years to ensure the heart is working properly.
Most affected individuals respond to dietary therapy consisting of a diet low in long-chain saturated fatty acids. The reduction of the intake of dietary fats generally relieves gastrointestinal symptoms. Patients should receive frequent dietary counseling. Diets in infants may be supplemented with medium chain fatty acids, which can be transported in the blood without apoB-containing lipoproteins, to promote normal growth and development.
The oral administration of high doses of fat-soluble vitamins (e.g., A, E, K) helps to prevent or improve many of the symptoms associated with abetalipoproteinemia. For example, treatment with vitamin E (i.e., tocopherol therapy) and vitamin A supplementation may prevent the neurological and retinal complications associated with abetalipoproteinemia. Vitamin D supplementation may help alleviate some of the symptoms associated with bone growth. Blood levels of fat-soluble vitamins should be measured at each follow up because the blood levels do not always correlate with the amount of vitamins ingested. Doses should be adjusted based on the results of blood panels, neurological exams, and ophthalmological exams. It should be noted that vitamin E levels are not reliably measurable in these patients even after high dose supplementations. Despite this, vitamin E therapy should continue in these patients.
The prognosis of patients is highly variable. Early detection, treatment and fat-soluble vitamin supplementation can help curtail some of the neurological and ophthalmological deficiencies. Patients should be carefully monitored if receiving fat soluble drug treatments (i.e., for diseases unrelated to abetalipoproteinemia) as their pharmacokinetics, absorption and transport may also be affected. Additional treatment is symptomatic and supportive.
Genetic counseling is recommended for families of children with abetalipoproteinemia.
Gene therapy has been studied as another approach to treat individuals with abetalipoproteinemia. In gene therapy, a normal gene is introduced to produce the active protein and prevent the development and progression of the disease in question. However, at this time, there remain substantial technical difficulties to resolve before gene therapy can be advocated as a viable alternative approach.
Information on current clinical trials is posted on the Internet at www.clinicaltrials.gov. All studies receiving U.S. government funding, and some supported by private industry, are posted on this government web site.
For information about clinical trials being conducted at the NIH Clinical Center in Bethesda, MD, contact the NIH Patient Recruitment Office:
Tollfree: (800) 411-1222
TTY: (866) 411-1010
Email: [email protected]
Some current clinical trials also are posted on the following page on the NORD website:
For information about clinical trials sponsored by private sources, contact:
For information about clinical trials conducted in Europe, contact:
Contact for additional information about abetalipoproteinemia:
Mahmood Hussain, PhD
Professor and Endowed Chair
Director, Diabetes and Obesity Research Center
Department of Foundations of Medicine, NYU Long Island School of Medicine
Minoela, NY 11501
Email: [email protected]
Please note that some of these organizations may provide information concerning certain conditions potentially associated with this disorder.
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