APS-1 is a rare and complex inherited disorder of immune-cell dysfunction with multiple autoimmunities. It presents as a constellation of symptoms and side-effects with potentially life-threatening endocrine gland and gastro-intestinal dysfunctions. The acronym of APS-1 stands for autoimmune polyglandular syndrome.
A condition is said to be "autoimmune" when antibodies and immune cells are launched by the body against one or several antigens of its own tissues. Since most of the target antigens have now been discovered, the corresponding auto-antibodies can often be measured in the blood as markers for the ongoing autoimmune disease to which they correspond.
APS-1 is caused by a large number of mutations of the autoimmune regulator (AIRE) gene. (For further information about the AIRE gene, please go to the 'Causes' section of this report.) HLA-DR/DQ genes also play a role in predisposing to which of the component disease the patient actually develops.
While the symptoms of APS-1 are variable in each patient, they will have components of at least two of the three major conditions that are the result of this syndrome: chronic mucocutaneous candidiasis, hypoparathyroidism, and adrenocortical insufficiency.
Chronic mucocutaneous candidiasis (CMC), a condition of recurrent candidiasis infections that may involve the skin, nails, oral, anal and genital mucosa, is a hallmark of APS Type 1 syndrome. It is often the first manifestation of APS Type 1, typically appearing and recurring frequently within the first two years of life. The CMC of APS Type 1 syndrome generally presents in babies as frequent thrush (oral candidiasis), diaper rash, and/or skin rashes. (For further information on CMC, please see ‘Related Disorders’ section of this report.)
The ectoderm is the outermost layer of the three primary cell layers of a developing embryo. It gives rise to specific tissues, including the skin, teeth, nails, hair and mucous membranes. A ‘dystrophy’ is a disorder of the structure of an organ or tissue of the body.
The term ectodermal dystrophy refers to the particular abnormalities of the nails, dental enamel (enamel hypoplasia of permanent teeth), hair (alopecia), corneas (keratopathy) and skin (vitiligo–areas of depigmention of the skin) that may be seen in patients with APS Type 1. These findings are not all necessarily present in every patient with APS Type 1, but can develop as a result of specific AIRE mutations. However, alopecia and vitiligo are caused by other specific autoimmunities, while nail deformities result from chronic candidiasis. The cause of dental enamel hypoplasia in APS Type 1, however, has not yet been determined. Metaphyseal dysplasias of the lower limb bones have recently been also described.
Patients with APS Type 1 have a defect of the immune system involving a particular subset of T-cells called Treg (T-regulatory) cells. It is suggested that this Treg-cell defect leads to the wide spread loss of immune tolerance, causing the autoimmunities in the disease. However, a specific defect in immunity to candidiasis indicates the present of an immune effector defect also. Possibly, the invariable presence of auto-antibodies to the interferon family of immunological molecules called cytokines may prove to be the underlying reason.
The first endocrine gland dysfunction to occur in APS Type 1 is usually hypoparathyroidism (under functioning of the parathyroid glands). More than 75% of patients develop hypoparathyroidism, usually before age 10-years. Dysfunction of the parathyroid glands leads to below-normal of serum calcium together with elevated phosphorus levels. In turn, this can lead to a host of clinical findings, including muscle cramping and spasms, rigidity (tetany) and eventually, seizures. (For further information on hypoparathyroidism, see Related Disorders Section of this report.)
Adrenocortical insufficiency (Addison’s disease) is typically the second endocrine disorder to appear in APS-1. Adrenocortical insufficiency is a disorder characterized by chronic and insufficient functioning of the cortex (outer layer) of the adrenal gland. This malfunction results in a deficiency of the glucocorticoid and salt retaining hormones cortisol and aldosterone respectively. Deficiencies of these hormones may lead to diarrhea, nausea and vomiting, low blood pressure, dehydration, and a small-sized heart. These side-effects can become pronounced and life-threatening if not correctly identified and treated. (For further information on adrenocortical insufficiency, see Related Disorders Section of this report.)
Patients with APS-1 can also develop other autoimmune disorders, including autoimmune liver disease (chronic active hepatitis), ovarian failure (hypogonadism), early onset pernicious anemia from atrophic gastritis, and a variety of gastro-intestinal problems resulting in chronic malabsorption and diarrhea. Insulin-dependent diabetes may also occur, albeit more often in Scandinavian patients than is seen in the US.
APS Type 1 is the result of autosomal recessive genetic transmission of mutations of a single gene. This gene is called the autoimmune regulator or AIRE gene. To date, more than 60 mutations in the AIRE gene have been identified in people with APS Type 1.
Recessive genetic disorders occur when an individual inherits two copies of an abnormal gene for the same trait, one from each parent. If an individual receives one normal gene and one gene for the disease, the person will be a carrier for the disease but will not show symptoms. The risk for two carrier parents to both pass the defective gene and have an affected child is 25% with each pregnancy. 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%. The risk is the same for males and females.
All individuals carry many abnormal single copy genes. Parents who are close relatives (consanguineous) have a higher chance than unrelated parents to both carry the same abnormal gene, which increases the risk to have children with a recessive genetic disorder. This risk rises with each generation that indulges in first cousin marriages.
The AIRE gene leads to the production of a protein called ‘autoimmune regulator’ which is highly expressed in the thymus gland, which is the random generator of thymus derived or T lymphocytes. If there is a deficiency of this protein, then those T-cells which have receptors capable of interacting with self antigens can escape into the circulation (instead of being destroyed in the thymus and not released) and result in autoimmune status. For reasons that are still unclear, defects of the autoimmune regulator protein primarily affect endocrine (hormone-producing) glands.
APS Type I is a very rare disorder that tends to cluster in certain homogenous populations, including certain groups of Finns, Iranian Jews, and Sardinians. However, it can be found in numerous populations and among multiple ethnic groups. In the US, APS-1 probably affects as few as 1 in every 2-3 million newborns.
APS-1 is diagnosed definitively through DNA analysis (via blood test) of mutations in the AIRE gene. The diagnosis should be strongly considered in people under 30 years of age who present with at least two of the three typical disease components (CMC, hypoparathyroidism, and/or Addison's disease). Recently, typical AIRE mutations have been identified in patients who have only one of these three cardinal features, but have other less common APS-1 associated autoimmunities. Since virtually all APS-1 patients have inferon auto antibodies, such antibodies when more freely available will serve as a cheaper diagnostic test.
A clinical history and physical exam that suggests more than one endocrine disorder, with or without CMC, should prompt the physician to obtain serum endocrine autoantibody blood tests
Treatment of APS-1 Syndrome is currently directed toward the specific diseases that are apparent in each patient. In general, replacement therapy of the endocrine hormones that may be lacking, and patient education about the signs and symptoms of these deficiencies, are integral to treatment success. The educational aspect is of extreme importance, as this allows the patient to self-monitor, hopefully avoiding a life-threatening situation.
Addison's disease is treated with drugs such as hydrocortisone and fludrocortisone to replace the cortisol and aldosterone that are deficient in Addison's patients.
Hypoparathyroidism is treated with oral calcium supplements and activated forms (1, 25 dihydroxy) of vitamin D such as Calctriol or Rocaltrol.
For chronic mucocutaneous candidiasis, oral fluconazole (Diflucan) is prescribed.
EURO-THYMAIDE is the first European Research Integrated Project (IP) aimed at understanding the mechanisms underlying the development of autoimmune diseases, by exploring the major biological functions of the thymus. Euro-Thymaide’s approach is mainly based on the major biological function of the thymus i.e. the generation of a repertoire of T cell receptors that are self-tolerant).
Information about this consortium can be found at: http://www.eurothymaide.org
EURAPS is a European physician consortium funded by the European Union. Its mission is to increase knowledge on APS Type 1, in particular, and on autoimmune diseases in general. Their major aims are to create a European registry and biobank that will describe the clinical manifestations of APS Type 1 in detail and to study the natural course of the disease.
Information about EURAPS can be found at: http://www.apeced.net/
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
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