Sandhoff disease




Sandhoff disease, is a lysosomal genetic, lipid storage disorder caused by the inherited deficiency to create functional beta-hexosaminidases A and B. These catabolic enzymes are needed to degrade the neuronal membrane components, ganglioside GM2, its derivative GA2, the glycolipid globoside in visceral tissues, and some oligosaccharides. Accumulation of these metabolites leads to a progressive destruction of the central nervous system and eventually to death. The rare autosomal recessive  neurodegenerative disorder is clinically almost indistinguishable from Tay-Sachs disease, another genetic disorder that disrupts beta-hexosaminidases A and S. There are three subsets of Sandhoff disease based on when first symptoms appear: classic infantile, juvenile and adult late onset.


Sandhoff disease symptoms are clinically indeterminable from Tay-Sachs Disease. The classic infantile form of the disease has the most severe symptoms and is incredibly hard to diagnose at this early age. The first signs of symptoms begin before 6 months of age and the parents’ notice when the child begins digressing in their development. If the children had the ability to sit up by themselves or crawl they will lose this ability. This is caused by a slow deterioration of the muscles in the child’s body from the buildup of GM2 gangliosides. Since the body is unable to create the enzymes it needs within the central nervous system it is unable to attach to these gangliosides to break them apart and make them non-toxic. With this buildup there are several symptoms that begin to appear such as muscle/motor weakness, sharp reaction to loud noises, blindness, deafness, inability to react to stimulants, respiratory problems and infections, mental retardation, seizures, cherry red spots in the retina, enlarged liver and spleen (hepatosplenomegaly), pneumonia, or bronchopneumonia.

The other two forms of Sandhoff disease have similar symptoms but to a lesser extent. Adult and juvenile forms of Sandhoff disease are more rare than the infantile form. In these cases victims suffer cognitive impairment (retardation) and a loss of muscle coordination that impairs and eventually destroys their ability to walk; the characteristic red spots in the retina also develop. The adult form of the disease, however, is sometimes milder, and may only lead to muscle weakness that impairs walking or the ability to get out of bed.


Two parents carrying a mutated gene and passing it on to their offspring cause the disease. Even with both parents carrying the disease in their genome, there is only a 25% chance that they will have a child containing the genetic coding for the disease (see figure right).

Each form of the disease is caused by the differences in the various mutations of the genome, in particular the codons on the 14 exons in the HEX B gene located within chromosome 5 (see figure bottom), leading to the differences in severities of the symptoms. The difference in the codons has the consequence of inhibiting two enzymes located in the lysosomes of the neurons of the central nervous system. Lysosomes contain various enzymes to break down byproducts and toxins to ensure they do not accumulate enough to interfere with the function of the central nervous system.

Using restriction enzymes, it was discovered that a mutation on chromosome 5 particularly within the C1214T allele caused the adult onset form of Sandhoff Disease. For the patient showing symptoms of the infantile or juvenile form they have a mutation on exon I207V from their father, and a 16 base pair deletion from their mother which can be located on as many as 5 exons, exons 1-5.


Sandhoff disease can be detected through the following procedures (before it is apparent through physical examination): a biopsy removing a sample of tissue from the liver, genetic testing, molecular analysis of cells and tissues (to determine the presence of a genetic metabolic disorder), enzyme assay, and occasionally a urinalysis to determine if the above-noted compounds are abnormally stored within the body. For a child to suffer from this disease, both parents must be carriers, and both must transmit the mutation to the child. Thus, even in the case where both parents have the mutation, there is only a 25 percent chance their child will inherit the condition. Frequently, parents are given the opportunity to have a DNA screening if they are at high risk, to determine their carrier status before they have children. However, it is also highly recommended to undergo testing even for those parents who do not have a family history of Sandhoff disease. Over 95% of the families that have children with Sandhoff disease had no known prior family history of the condition, as the mutation in the HEXB gene is "silent," or recessive, and often passed undetected from one generation to the next Naturally, if an individual carries the mutation, he or she has a risk of transmitting it to the unborn child. Genetic counseling is recommended for those who have the mutation.

The most well known laboratory to perform the blood tests is through Lysosomal Diseases Testing Laboratory, Jefferson University with Dr. Wenger. Dr. Wenger's laboratory does testing for all lysosomal diseases including Sandhoff and Tay-Sachs. They test for build-up of certain toxins in the body as well as a low count of enzymes.

It is possible for parents who are about to have a child or had a child with Sandhoff Disease can have a PGD or PEGD. PEGD is pre-embryonic genetic diagnosis for the parents that would not benefit from a pre-implantation genetic diagnosis because of their religion or negative attitude for the discarding of embryos. PEGD sequences the genome of the embryo to be produced by two parents if they were to conceive a child. If the family has a history of Sandhoff disease it is recommended they have their genome sequenced to ensure they are not carriers or to sequence the genome of their child.


Currently Sandhoff disease does not have any standard treatment and does not have a cure. However, a person suffering from the disease needs proper nutrition, hydration, and maintenance of clear airways. To reduce some symptoms that may occur with Sandhoff disease, the patient may take anticonvulsants to manage seizures or medications to treat respiratory infections, and consume a precise diet consisting of puree foods due to difficulties swallowing. Infants with the disease usually die by the age of 3 due to respiratory infections. The patient must be under constant surveillance because they can suffer from aspiration or lack the ability to change from the passage way to their lungs versus their stomach and their spit travels to the lungs causing bronchopneumonia. The patient also lacks the ability to cough and therefore must undergo a treatment to shake up their body to remove the mucus from the lining of their lungs. Medication is also given to patients to lessen their symptoms including seizures.

Currently the government is testing several treatments including N-butyldeoxynojirimycin in mice, as well as stem cell treatment in humans and other medical treatments recruiting test patients.