Wilson's disease is an inherited disorder in which there is too much copper in the body's tissues. The excess copper damages the liver and nervous system.
Causes, incidence, and risk factors
Wilson's disease is a rare inherited disorder. If both parents carry an abnormal gene for Wilson's disease, there is a 25% chance in each pregnancy that the child will have the disorder.
Wilson's disease causes the body to take in and keep too much copper. The copper deposits in the liver, brain, kidneys, and the eyes. The deposits of copper cause tissue damage, death of the tissues, and scarring, which causes the affected organs to stop working correctly.
This condition is most common in eastern Europeans, Sicilians, and southern Italians, but may occur in any group. Wilson's disease typically appears in people under 40 years old. In children, the symptoms begin to show by age 4.
The gene responsible for Wilson's disease has been found. It is called ATP7B. DNA testing is available for this gene. However, testing is complicated because different ethnic groups may have different changes (mutations) in this gene.
The goal of treatment is to reduce the amount of copper in the tissues. This is done by a procedure called chelation -- certain medications can bind to copper and help remove it through the kidneys or gut. Treatment must be lifelong.
The following medications may be used:
Penicillamine (Cuprimine, Depen) binds to copper and leads to increased release of copper in the urine.
Trientine (Syprine) binds (chelates) the copper and increases its release through the urine.
Zinc acetate (Galzin) blocks copper from being absorbed in the intestinal tract.
Vitamin E supplements may also be used.
Sometimes, medications that chelate copper (especially penicillamine) can affect the function of the brain and nervous system (neurological function). Other medications under investigation may bind copper without affecting neurological function.
A low-copper diet may also be recommended. Foods to avoid include:
You may want to drink distilled water because most tap water flows through copper pipes. Avoid using copper cooking utensils.
Symptoms may be treated with exercise or physical therapy. People who are confused or unable to care for themselves may need special protective measures.
A liver transplant may be considered in cases where the liver is severely damaged by the disease.
Lifelong treatment is needed to control Wilson's disease. The disorder may cause fatal effects, especially loss of liver function and toxic effects of copper on the nervous system. In cases where the disorder is not fatal, symptoms may be disabling.
Chad Haldeman-Englert, MD, Division of Human Genetics, Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, Philadelphia, PA. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.