Bruton agammaglobulinemia is an X-linked genetic condition caused by an abnormality in a key enzyme needed for proper function of the immune system. People who have this disorder have low levels of protective antibodies and are vulnerable to repeated and potentially fatal infections.
An integral aspect of the body's ability to resist and fight off infections by microorganisms (bacteria, viruses, parasites, fungi) is the immune system. The immune system is comprised of specialized cells whose function is to recognize organisms that are foreign to the body and destroy them. One set of specialized cells used to fight infection are the B cells. B cells circulate in the bloodstream and produce organism-fighting proteins called antibodies.
Antibodies are made of different classes of immunoglobulin that are produced within a B cell and are then released into the bloodstream, where they attach to invading microorganisms. There are antibodies specifically designed to combine with each and every microorganism, very similar to a lock and key. Once the antibodies attach to the microorganism, it triggers other specialized cells of the immune system to attack and destroy the invader, thus preventing or fighting an existing infection.
In order for antibodies to be produced by the body, the B cells must develop and mature so they are capable of producing the infection-fighting antibodies. When this process does not occur normally, the immune system can not work properly to fight off infection, a state known as immunodeficiency. Bruton agammaglobulinemia (also called X-linked agammaglobulinemia, or congenital agammaglobulinemia) is an inherited immunodeficiency characterized by failure to produce mature B cells and thus to produce the antibodies needed to fight infections. The abnormality in this disorder resides in Bruton tyrosine kinase (BTK, also known as BPK or ATK), an enzyme needed for maturation of B cells. As a result, people with this condition have low levels of mature B cells and the antibodies that they produce, making them vulnerable to frequent and sometimes dangerous infections.
Bruton agammaglobulinemia was the first immunodeficiency disease to be identified, reported by the physician Colonel Ogden C. Bruton in 1952. Bruton's patient, a four-year-old boy, was first admitted to Walter Reed Army Hospital because of an infected knee. The child recovered well when Bruton gave him antibiotics, but over the next four years he had multiple infections. Just at that time, a new instrument was installed in the hospital's laboratory that was able to measure levels of antibodies in the bloodstream. At first the technician believed the machine was defective because it did not detect gammaglobulins (the building blocks of antibodies) in the boy, but Bruton recognized the significance of this finding, and remarked, "Things began to click then. No gammaglobulins; can't build antibodies."
Bruton agammaglobulinemia is inherited in an X-linked recessive manner; thus, almost all persons with the disorder are male. Females have two X chromosomes , which means they have two copies of the BTKgene , whereas males only have one X chromosome and one copy of the BTK gene. If a male has an altered BTK gene, he will have Bruton agammaglobulinemia. If a female has one altered BTK gene, she will be a carrier and will be at risk to pass the altered gene on to her children. If her son inherits the altered gene, he will be affected; if her daughter inherits the altered gene, she will be a carrier like her mother. Alternatively, if her son or daughter does not inherit the altered gene, they will not be affected and will not pass the altered gene on to their children. Since fathers only pass a Y chromosome to their sons and an X chromosome to their daughters, none of an affected male's sons will develop the disorder but all of the daughters will be carriers.
Mutations in the gene for BTK (located at Xq21.3-22) are responsible for the disease. Over 250 different mutations in BTK have been identified and they are spread almost evenly throughout the BTK gene. While this abnormal gene can be passed from parent to child, in half of the cases a child will show the disease without having a parent with the mutant gene. This is because new alterations in the BTK gene can occur. This new alteration can then be passed on to the affected individual's children.
Bruton agammaglobulinemia occurs in all racial groups, with an incidence between one in 50,000 and one in 100,000 individuals.
Signs and symptoms
Bruton agammaglobulinemia is a defect in the B cells, leading to decreased antibodies in the blood and increased vulnerability to infection with certain types of bacteria and a few viruses. Children with Bruton agammaglobulinemia are born healthy and usually begin to show signs of infection in the first three to nine months of life, when antibodies that come from the mother during pregnancy and early breast-feeding disappear. In 20-30% of the cases, however, patients may have slightly higher levels of antibodies present, and symptoms will not appear until later in childhood.
Patients with Bruton agammaglobulinemia can have infections that involve the skin, bone, brain, gastrointestinal tract, sinuses, eyes, ears, nose, airways to the lung, or lung itself. In addition, the bacteria may migrate from the original site of infection and enter the bloodstream, leading to an overwhelming infection of the body that is potentially fatal.
Besides signs of recurrent infections, other physical findings in patients with Bruton agammaglobulinemia include slow growth, wheezing, small tonsils, and abnormal levels of tooth decay. Children may also develop unusual symptoms such as joint disease, destruction of red blood cells, kidney damage, and skin and muscle inflammation. Increased incidence of cancers, such as leukemia, lymphoma, and possibly colon cancer, have been associated with Bruton agammaglobulinemia in a small percentage of people.
Infections seen with Bruton agammaglobulinemia are caused by bacteria that are easily destroyed by a normal-functioning immune system. The most common bacterial species responsible for these infections include Streptococcus pneumoniae, Streptococcus pyogenes, Staphylococcus aureus, Pseudomonas aeruginosa, Neisseria meningitides, Klebsiella pneumoniae, Hemophilus influenzae, and Mycoplasma species. Chronic stomach and intestine infections are often linked to the parasite Giardia lamblia.
Patients with Bruton agammaglobulinemia can successfully defend themselves against infection from viruses and fungi because other aspects of the immune system are still functional. However, there are some notable exceptions—people with this disorder are still vulnerable to the hepatitis virus, poliomyelitis virus, and echovirus. Echovirus is particularly troubling, as it can lead to progressive and fatal infections of the brain, joints, and skin.
Recurrent infections or infections that fail to respond completely or quickly to antibiotics should prompt a diagnostic search for immunodeficiency and Bruton agammaglobulinemia. Another helpful clue to a diagnosis of Bruton agammaglobulinemia is the presence of unusually small lymph nodes and tonsils. Additionally, many patients with this disorder have a history of continuous illness; that is, they do not have periods of wellbeing between bouts of illness.
When a patient is suspected of having Bruton agammaglobulinemia, the diagnosis is established by several tests. The amount of immunoglobulin is measured in a small amount of blood from the affected individual by a technique called immunoelectrophoresis. In Bruton agammaglobulinemia, all of the immunoglobulins will be markedly reduced or absent. It should be noted that there is some difficulty in diagnosing the disease in a young infant or newborn because immunoglobulins from the mother are still present in the child during the first few months of life.
For those patients in which the exact diagnosis is still unclear, tests can be performed to determine if there has been any response to normal childhood immunizations (such as the tetanus, diptheria, and pertussis vaccines). Patients with Bruton agammaglobulinemia are unable to respond with antibody formation following immunization. Confirmation of the diagnosis can be made by demonstrating abnormally low numbers of mature B cells in the blood or by genetic studies that look for mutations in the BTK gene. When a diagnosis of Bruton agammaglobulinemia is made in a child, genetic testing of the BTK gene can be offered to determine if a specific gene change can be identified. If a specific change is identified, carrier testing can be offered to the mother and female relatives. In families where the mother has been identified to be a carrier of a BTK gene change, diagnosis of Bruton agammaglobulinemia before birth is possible, if desired. Prenatal diagnosis is performed on cells obtained by amniocentesis (withdrawal of the fluid surrounding a fetus in the womb using a needle) at about 16-18 weeks of pregnancy or from the chorionic villi (a part of the placenta) at 10-12 weeks of pregnancy. In some families, a BTK gene change cannot be identified. Other laboratory techniques may be available to these families such as linkage studies or X chromosome inactivation studies.
Other diagnostic tests have been advocated to track the ongoing health of the patient with Bruton agammaglobulinemia. X rays of the sinuses and chest should be obtained at regular intervals to monitor for the early development of infections and to determine if proper treatment has been established. Lung function tests should also be performed on a regular basis, when the patient is old enough to cooperate. Patients who have ongoing gastrointestinal tract symptoms (diarrhea) should be tested for the parasite Giardia lamblia.
Treatment and management
Current research into a cure for Bruton agammaglobulinemia is focusing on the ability of bone marrow transplantation or gene therapy to correct the abnormal BTK gene, however, there is no cure at this time. Therefore the goals of treatment are threefold: to treat infection effectively, to prevent repeated infections, and to prevent the lung damage that may result from repeated infections.
The main abnormality in patients with Bruton agammaglobulinemia is a lack of immunoglobulins, which are the building blocks of antibodies. Thus, treatment focuses on replacing immunoglobulin, thereby providing patients with the antibodies they need to fight infection. Immunoglobulin can be obtained from the blood of several donors and given to a patient with Bruton agammaglobulinemia. Treatment with immunoglobulin is given every three to four weeks and is usually effective in preventing infection by various microorganisms.
Side effects from or allergic reactions to immunoglobulin are infrequent, but about 3-12% of people will experience shortness of breath, sweating, increased heart rate, stomach pain, fever, chills, headache, or nausea. These symptoms will usually subside if the immunoglobulin is given slowly, or the reactions may disappear after receiving the immunoglobulin several times. If the reactions continue, it may be necessary to use a special filtering process before giving the immunoglobulin to the patient.
If infection does occur in a patient with Bruton agammaglobulinemia, antibiotics (medications which kill bacteria) are also given to help fight off the infection. Recurrent or chronic infections will develop in some patients despite the use of immunoglobulin. In that case, antibiotics may be given every day, even when there is no infection present, in order to prevent an infection from forming. If chronic diarrhea is experienced by the patient, tests should be performed to look for the parasite Giardia lamblia, and proper antibiotics should be given to kill the organism.
Preventative techniques are also very important. Children with Bruton agammaglobulinemia should be treated promptly for even minor cuts and scrapes, and taught to avoid crowds and people with infections. People with this disorder and their family members should not be given vaccinations that contain live organisms (polio, or the measles, mumps, rubella vaccine) as the organism may result in the immunocompromised person contracting the disease that the vaccination is intended to prevent. Referral for genetic counseling is appropriate for female relatives seeking information about their carrier status and for family members making reproductive decisions.
Without immunoglobulin treatment, 90% of patients with Bruton agammaglobulinemia will die by the age of eight years old. In most patients who have been diagnosed early and are receiving immunoglobulin on a regular basis, the prognosis is reasonably good. They should be able to lead a relatively normal childhood and need not be isolated to prevent dangerous infections. A full and active lifestyle is to be encouraged.
While current therapy allows most individuals with Bruton agammaglobulinemia to reach adulthood, the prognosis must be guarded. Paralysis of the legs may result from the poliomyelitis virus. Despite what may appear to be adequate immunoglobulin therapy, many patients develop severe, irreversible lung disease. Fatal brain infections have been reported even in patients receiving immunoglobulin therapy, and patients who recover from these infections may be left with severe brain damage. Finally, some patients may develop leukemia or lymphoma.
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Oren Traub, MD, PhD