Alkaptonuria is a rare inherited genetic disorder in which the body cannot process the amino acids phenylalanine and tyrosine, which occur in protein. The three major features of alkaptonuria are the presence of dark urine, ochronosis, a buildup of dark pigment in connective tissues such as cartilage and skin, and arthritis of the spine and larger joints. Ochronosis starts after age 30 and arthritis in early adulthood.
It is caused by a mutation in the HGD gene for the enzyme homogentisate 1,2-dioxygenase (EC 22.214.171.124); if a person inherits abnormal copies from each parent (it is a recessive condition) the body accumulates an intermediate substance called homogentisic acid in the blood and tissues. Homogentisic acid and its oxidated form alkapton are excreted in the urine, giving it an unusually dark color. The accumulating homogentisic acid causes damage to cartilage (ochronosis, leading to osteoarthritis) and heart valves as well as precipitating as kidney stones and stones in other organs. Symptoms usually develop in people over thirty years old, although the dark discoloration of the urine is present from birth.
Apart from treatment of the complications (such as pain relief and joint replacement for the cartilage damage), vitamin C has been used to reduce the ochronosis and lowering of the homogentisic acid levels may be attempted with a low-protein diet. Recently the drug nitisinone has been found to suppresses homogentisic acid production, and research is ongoing as to whether it can improve symptoms. Alkaptonuria is a rare disease; it occurs in one in 250,000 people, but is more common in Slovakia and the Dominican Republic.
The three main features of alkaptonuria (AKU) are the presence of a substance called homogentisic acid (HGA) in the urine, ochronosis and arthritis. The urine of individuals with AKU turns black when exposed to air. Children do not have symptoms of AKU other than the urine turning black when left to stand for a few minutes. Ochronosis, a buildup of dark pigment in connective tissues such as cartilage and skin, is also characteristic of the disorder. This blue-black pigmentation usually appears after age 30 and commonly affects the cartilage of the ear, ligaments, tendons, blood vessels, kidneys, lungs and prostate. Dark spots on the white of the eye and cornea may also occur. People with alkaptonuria typically develop arthritis, particularly in the spine and large joints, beginning in early adulthood. Other features of this condition can include heart problems, kidney stones, changes of the sound of the voice and prostate stones.
Patients with alkaptonuria are asymptomatic as children or young adults, but their urine may turn brown or even inky black if collected and left exposed to open air. Pigmentation may be noted in the cartilage of the ear as well as other cartilage, and the sclera and corneal limbus of the eye.
After the age of thirty people begin to develop pain in the weight-bearing joints of the spine, hips and knees. The pain can be severe to the point that interferes with activities of daily living and may affect ability to work. Joint replacement surgery (hip and shoulder) is often necessary at a relatively young age. In the longer term, the involvement of the spinal joints leads to reduced movement of the rib cage and can affect breathing. Bone mineral density may be affected, increasing the risk of bone fractures, and rupture of tendons and muscles may occur.
Valvular heart disease, mainly calcification and regurgitation of the aortic and mitral valves, may occur, and in severe and progressive cases valve replacement may be necessary. Irregularities in the heart rhythm and heart failure affect a significant proportion of people with alkaptonuria (40% and 10% respectively). Hearing loss affects 40% of people. There is also a propensity to developing kidney stones, and eventually also gallstones and stones in the prostate and salivary glands (sialolithiasis).
Mutations in the HGD gene cause alkaptonuria. The HGD gene provides instructions for making an enzyme called homogentisate oxidase. This enzyme helps break down the amino acids phenylalanine and tyrosine, which are important building blocks of proteins. Mutations in the HGD gene impair the enzyme's role in this process. As a result, a substance called homogentisic acid, which is produced as phenylalanine and tyrosine are broken down, accumulates in the body. Excess homogentisic acid and related compounds are deposited in connective tissues, which causes cartilage and skin to darken. Over time, a buildup of this substance in the joints leads to arthritis. Homogentisic acid is also excreted in urine, making the urine turn dark when exposed to air.
It is not possible to identify heterozygous carriers yet and prenatal screening is not available. Testing for carriers with a tyrosine load may give results but as some have 50% of normal enzyme activity it is unsatisfactory.4 It is common to find a negative family history of the condition
Making a diagnosis for a genetic or rare disease can often be challenging. Healthcare professionals typically look at a person's medical history, symptoms, physical exam, and laboratory test results in order to make a diagnosis. The following resources provide information relating to diagnosis and testing for this condition. If you have questions about getting a diagnosis, you should contact a healthcare professional.
If the diagnosis of alkaptonuria is suspected, this can be confirmed or excluded by collecting urine for twenty-four hours and determining the amount of homogentisic acid by means of chromatography. There is no validated assay of HGA in blood.
The severity of the symptoms and response to treatment can be quantified through a validated questionnaire titled the AKU Severity Score Index. This includes assigns scores to the presence of particular symptoms and features, such as the presence of eye and skin pigmentation, joint pain, heart problems and organ stones.
Alkaptonuria does not appear to affect life expectancy, although this has not been surveyed in the last 40 years. The main impact is on quality of life; many people with alkaptonuria have disabling symptoms such as pain, poor sleep and breathing symptoms. These generally start in the fourth decade. The average age at requiring joint replacement surgery is 50-55 years.
There is no cure for alkaptonuria, but there is treatment for some individual signs and symptoms of the condition. Joint pain may be substantial in individuals with alkaptonuria, and close attention to pain control is usually necessary. Physical and occupational therapy can be important to promote muscle strength and flexibility. Knee, hip, and shoulder replacement surgeries may be options for managing significant arthritis. In general, however, the goal of joint replacement is pain relief rather than increased range of motion. Maintaining joint range of motion through moderate non-weight-bearing exercise such as swimming may have beneficial effects. Treatment of prostate stones and renal stones may include surgery.
Several therapies for alkaptonuria have been investigated. Treatment of alkaptonuria with nitisinone (also called NTBC) has been proposed; nitisinone is currently approved for the treatment of tyrosinemia type I, which is also a metabolic disorder. Further investigations to determine the benefits of nitisinone in slowing the progression of joint disease are in progress.Oral bisphosphonate therapy has been suggested to halt the progressive bone loss but studies have not confirmed the benefit. To see a list of completed clinical trials or trials currently enrolling individuals with alkaptonuria, click here.
No therapy has proven to prevent or correct the pigmentary changes of ochronosis.
Dietary restriction of phenylalanine and tyrosine has been proposed to reduce the production of HGA, but severe restriction of these amino acids is not practical in the long term and may be dangerous.
Main treatment attempts have focused on preventing ochronosis through the reduction of accumulating homogentisic acid. Such commonly recommended treatments include large doses of ascorbic acid (vitamin C) or dietary restriction of amino acids phenylalanine and tyrosine. However, vitamin C treatment has not shown to be effective, and protein restriction (which can be difficult to adhere to) has not shown to be effective in clinical studies.
Several recent studies have suggested that the herbicide nitisinone may be effective in the treatment of alkaptonuria. Nitrisinone inhibits the enzyme, 4-hydroxyphenylpyruvate dioxygenase, responsible for converting tyrosine to homogentisic acid, thereby blocking the production and accumulation of HGA. Nitisinone has been used for some time at much higher doses in the treatment of type I tyrosinemia. Nitisinone treatment has been shown to cause a larger than 95% reduction in plasma and urinary HGA. The main drawback is accumulation of tyrosine, the long-term risks of which are unknown; there is a particular concern about damage to the cornea of the eye. Long-term use would require frequent monitoring for complications.