NORD gratefully acknowledges Suzy Cahn, MMSc, NORD Editorial Intern from the Emory University Genetic Counseling Training Program and Cecelia A. Bellcross, PhD, MS, CGC, Associate Professor, Director, Genetic Counseling Training Program, Emory University School of Medicine, for assistance in the preparation of this report.
Apert syndrome is a rare genetic condition that is apparent at birth. People with Apert syndrome can have distinctive malformations of the skull, face, hands, and feet. Apert syndrome is characterized by craniosynostosis, a condition in which the fibrous joints (sutures) between bones of the skull close prematurely. This can cause the top of the head to appear pointed and can affect facial bones. Certain fingers or toes may be fused or webbed. Affected children may also have intellectual disability. The severity of symptoms varies between individuals. Apert syndrome almost always results from new genetic changes (mutations) that occur randomly. Rarely, it is inherited in an autosomal dominant pattern. People with Apert syndrome can undergo therapies that address specific symptoms. This could include reconstructive skull, facial, hand, and foot surgeries.
Apert syndrome is a type of acrocephalosyndactyly (ACS known as acrocephalosyndactyly type 1 (ACS1). All forms of ACS are characterized by craniosynostosis and this affects the proper growth of the skull and head.
Apert syndrome is characterized by craniosynostosis, the premature closure of the fibrous joints (sutures) between certain bones in the skull. In individuals without craniosynostosis, sutures allow an infant’s head to grow and expand. Eventually, these bones fuse together to form the skull. For people with craniosynostosis, the brain is still growing after these sutures prematurely close. The pressure of brain growth can cause various bones of the skull and face to change shape during development. Depending on which sutures prematurely close, the severity can vary. In most affected individuals, there is premature closure of the sutures between the bones forming the forehead and the upper sides of the skull. This tends to cause the head to appear pointed at the top (acrocephaly) from birth. In addition, the back portion of the skull may appear flattened, with a high and broad forehead. There can be a large, late-closing “soft spot” on the skull. Individuals may also have hydrocephalus, in which cerebrospinal fluid abnormally accumulates in the cavities of the brain. This can cause pressure on the brain.
The facial bones can be affected by craniosynostosis. This can lead to characteristic facial abnormalities. People with Apert syndrome may have widely spaced eyes (hypertelorism), bulging eyes, or down-slanting palpebral fissures. They may also have underdeveloped midfacial regions (maxillary hypoplasia) and palate abnormalities such as a cleft palate. The right and left sides of the face may not be symmetrical. People with Apert syndrome may have a flattened nose with a low bridge. Individuals may have delayed teeth growth, dental crowding, or an open bite. They can have moderate to severe acne. If the openings between the nose and throat are narrowed or blocked or the tracheal cartilage is malformed, this could interfere with breathing and swallowing. Individuals with these blockages can have upper respiratory tract infections, sleep apnea, and malnutrition.
Apert syndrome has several characteristic hand and foot malformations. Affected individuals can have short fingers and broad thumbs and great toes that deviate outward. They may also have partial to complete fusion (syndactyly) of certain fingers and toes. Many affected people have complete fusion of the bones of the second to the fourth fingers, and one single, continuous nail (“mitten-like” syndactyly). However, other fusions can also happen. Finger joints tend to become stiff by about four years of age. In the feet, syndactyly also typically involves the second, third, and fourth toes. The toenails may be partially continuous or separate. Generally, upper limbs are more severely affected by Apert syndrome than the lower limbs.
Apert syndrome can affect other organ systems as well:
Apert syndrome is caused by a change (mutation) in the fibroblast growth factor receptor-2 (FGFR2) gene. This gene plays a critical role in skeletal development. Genes provide instructions for creating proteins that play distinct roles in our body. When a mutation of a gene occurs, the protein product may not work as it should. In Apert syndrome, mutations in FGFR2 result in these receptors not properly communicating with fibroblast growth factors. This affects the formation of normal sutures in the brain and can obstruct the development of many other structures in the body. This improper formation is what causes the malformations seen in Apert syndrome.
In almost all reported patients, the disorder has been caused by one of two specific mutations of the FGFR2 gene. (These mutations are designated “Ser252Trp” and “Pro253Arg.”) These mutations may cause slightly different presentations, including the severity of syndactyly. Different mutations in the FGFR2 gene may cause several other related disorders, including Pfeiffer syndrome, Crouzon syndrome, and Jackson-Weiss syndrome. (For further information on these disorders, please see the “Related Disorders” section of this report below.)
In up to 95% of patients, Apert syndrome results from a new mutation in the FGFR2 gene. These new mutations appear to occur randomly for unknown reasons (sporadically). It has been reported that sporadic cases may be associated with increased age of the father.
Rarely, Apert syndrome is inherited in an autosomal dominant fashion. Dominant genetic disorders occur when only a single copy of a mutation is necessary to cause a particular disease. The risk of passing the mutation from an affected parent to an offspring is 50% for each pregnancy. The risk is the same for males and females.
Apert syndrome is estimated to occur in about one in 65,000 births. Males and females seem to have Apert syndrome in relatively equal numbers. Over 300 cases have been reported since the disorder was originally described in 1894 and 1906. Asian individuals have been reported to have the highest incidence of Apert syndrome.
A diagnosis of Apert syndrome is most often made at birth or during infancy. An individual is diagnosed through clinical evaluation and a variety of specialized tests. Physical features like facial anomalies or syndactyly would be identified. Skeletal abnormalities and congenital heart defects may be detected using imaging, like a computed tomography (CT) scan or an MRI. Hearing impairment may be detected during a newborn screening hearing test. Individuals may also have testing for mutations in the FGFR2 gene, which can provide a genetic diagnosis of Apert syndrome.
In some instances, features of Apert syndrome may be detected before birth. This would be done through prenatal 2D or 3D ultrasound or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). An ultrasound is a noninvasive procedure that can see an image of the fetus. This can detect differences in skull shape, facial anomalies, and syndactyly. Fetal MRI can provide greater detail of the fetal brain than ultrasound.
The treatment of Apert syndrome varies based on which symptoms are seen in the individual. Such treatment may require care by a team of healthcare providers including pediatricians and surgeons. Specialists may include hearing specialists, neurosurgeons, physicians who specialize in disorders of the skeleton, joints, and muscles (orthopedists), physicians who specialize in disorders of the ears, nose, and throat (otolaryngologists), and physicians who specialize in heart abnormalities (cardiologists).
Specific therapies for Apert syndrome are symptomatic and supportive. Craniosynostosis and hydrocephalus may result in abnormally increased pressure within the skull and on the brain. In such cases, early surgery (within 2 to 4 months after birth) may be advised to correct craniosynostosis. For those with hydrocephalus, surgery may also involve inserting a tube (shunt) to drain excess cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) away from the brain. The CSF would be drained into another part of the body where it can be absorbed.
Corrective and reconstructive surgery may be recommended to help correct craniofacial malformations. Surgery may also be able to help correct polydactyly and syndactyly, and other skeletal defects or physical abnormalities. For those with congenital heart defects, treatment with certain medications, surgical intervention, and/or other measures may be necessary. For some individuals with hearing impairment, hearing aids may be beneficial.
Early intervention may be important to ensure that children with Apert syndrome reach their full potential. Special services like physical therapy, occupational therapy, and special education may be beneficial.
Genetic counseling is recommended for affected individuals and their families. A genetic counselor can explain the causes of Apert syndrome. They can also discuss the chances of having additional children with Apert syndrome. Psychosocial support for the entire family is essential as well.
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:
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Some current clinical trials also are posted on the following page on the NORD website: https://rarediseases.org/for-patients-and-families/information-resources/info-clinical-trials-and-research-studies/
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For information about clinical trials conducted in Europe, contact: https://www.clinicaltrialsregister.eu/
RareConnect offers a safe patient-hosted online community for patients and caregivers affected by this rare disease. For more information, visit www.rareconnect.org.
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