Galactosemia is an inherited disease in which the transformation of galactose to glucose is blocked, allowing galactose to increase to toxic levels in the body. If galactosemia is untreated, high levels of galactose cause vomiting, diarrhea, lethargy, low blood sugar, brain damage, jaundice, liver enlargement, cataracts, susceptibility to infection, and death.
Affected infants typically develop feeding difficulties, a lack of energy (lethargy), a failure to gain weight and grow as expected (failure to thrive), yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes (jaundice), liver damage, and bleeding. Other serious complications of this condition can include overwhelming bacterial infections (sepsis) and shock. Affected children are also at increased risk of delayed development, clouding of the lens of the eye (cataract), speech difficulties, and intellectual disability. Females with classic galactosemia may experience reproductive problems caused by ovarian failure.
Mutations in the GALE, GALK1, and GALT genes cause galactosemia.
The GALE, GALK1, and GALT genes provide instructions for making enzymes that are essential for processing galactose obtained from the diet. These enzymes break down galactose into another simple sugar, glucose, and other molecules that the body can store or use for energy.
Mutations in the GALT gene are responsible for classic galactosemia (type I). Most of these genetic changes almost completely eliminate the activity of the enzyme produced from the GALT gene, preventing the normal processing of galactose and resulting in the life-threatening signs and symptoms of this disorder. Another GALT gene mutation, known as the Duarte variant, reduces but does not eliminate the activity of the enzyme. People with the Duarte variant tend to have much milder features of galactosemia.
Galactosemia type II results from mutations in the GALK1 gene, while mutations in the GALE gene underlie galactosemia type III. Like the enzyme produced from the GALT gene, the enzymes made from the GALK1 and GALE genes play important roles in processing galactose. A shortage of any of these critical enzymes allows galactose and related compounds to build up to toxic levels in the body. The accumulation of these substances damages tissues and organs, leading to the characteristic features of galactosemia.
Since galactosemia is a recessive genetic disease, the disease is usually detected on a newborn screening test, since most people are unaware that they are carriers of a gene mutation causing the disease. For couples with a previous child with galactosemia, prenatal diagnosis is available to determine whether a pregnancy is similarly affected. Families in which a child has been diagnosed with galactosemia can have DNA testing which can enable other more distant relatives to determine their carrier status. Prospective parents can then use that information to conduct family planning or to prepare for a child with special circumstances. Children born with galactosemia should be put on a special diet right away, to reduce the symptoms and complications of the disease.
The newborn screening test for classic galactosemia is quick and straightforward; all but three states require testing on all newborns. Blood from a baby who is two to three days old is usually first screened for high levels of galactose and galactose-1-phosphate. If either of these compounds is elevated, further tests are performed to find out which enzymes (GALT, GALK, or GALE) are present or missing. DNA testing may also be performed to confirm the diagnosis. If there is a strong suspicion that a baby has galactosemia, galactose is removed from the diet right away. In this case, an initial screen for galactose or galactose-1-phosphate will be meaningless. In the absence of galactose in the diet, this test will be negative whether the baby has galactosemia or not. In this case, tests to measure enzyme levels must be given to find out if the suspected baby is indeed galactosemic.
Early detection in the newborn period is the key to controlling symptoms. Long-term effects in untreated babies include severe mental retardation, cirrhosis of the liver, and death. About 75% of the untreated babies die within the first two weeks of life. On the other hand, with treatment, a significant proportion of people with galactosemia I can lead nearly normal lives, although speech defects, learning disabilities, and behavioral problems are common. A 2004 study revealed that children and adolescents with classic galactosemia often have lower quality of life than peers without the disease, exhibiting problems with cognition (thinking and intellectual skills) and social function. In addition, cataracts due to galactosemia II can be completely prevented by a galactose-free diet.
Galactosemia I and II are treated by removing galactose from the diet. Since galactose is a breakdown product of lactose, the primary sugar constituent of milk, this means all milk and foods containing milk products must be totally eliminated. Other foods like legumes, organ meats, and processed meats also contain considerable galactose and must be avoided. Pills that use lactose as a filler must also be avoided. Soybased and casein hydrolysate-based formulas are recommended for infants with galactosemia. Treatment of the severe form of galactosemia III with a galactose-restricted diet has been tried, but this disorder is so rare that the long-term effects of this treatment are unknown.