Shwachman–Diamond syndrome (SDS or Shwachman–Bodian–Diamond syndrome) is a rare congenital disorder characterized by exocrine pancreatic insufficiency, bone marrow dysfunction, skeletal abnormalities, and short stature. After cystic fibrosis (CF), it is the second most common cause of exocrine pancreatic insufficiency in children.
This syndrome shows a wide range of abnormalities and symptoms. The main characteristics of the syndrome are exocrine pancreatic dysfunction, hematologic abnormalities and growth retardation. Only the first two of these are included in the clinical diagnostic criteria.
- Hematologic abnormalities: Neutropenia may be intermittent or persistent and is the most common hematological finding. Low neutrophil counts leave patients at risk of developing severe recurrent infections that may be life-threatening. Anemia (low red blood cell counts) and thrombocytopenia (low platelet counts) may also occur. Bone marrow is typically hypocellular, with maturation arrest in the myeloid lineages that give rise to neutrophils, macrophages, platelets and red blood cells. Patients may also develop progressive marrow failure or transform to acute myelogenous leukemia.
- Exocrine pancreatic dysfunction: Pancreatic exocrine insufficiency arises due to a lack of acinar cells that produce digestive enzymes. These are extensively depleted and replaced by fat. A lack of pancreatic digestive enzymes leaves patients unable to digest and absorb fat. However, pancreatic status may improve with age in some patients.
- Growth retardation: More than 50% of patients are below the third percentile for height, and short stature appears to be unrelated to nutritional status. Other skeletal abnormalities include metaphyseal dysostosis (45% of patients), thoracic dystrophy (rib cage abnormalities in 46% of patients), and costochondral thickening (shortened ribs with flared ends in 32% of patients). Skeletal problems are one of the most variable components of SDS, with 50% affected siblings from the same family discordant for clinical presentation or type of abnormality. Despite this, a careful review of radiographs from 15 patients indicated that all of them had at least one skeletal anomaly, though many were subclinical.
- Other features include metaphysial dysostosis, mild hepatic dysfunction, increased frequency of infections.
Mutations in the SBDS gene have been identified in about 90 percent of people with the characteristic features of Shwachman-Diamond syndrome. This gene provides instructions for making a protein whose function is unknown, although it is active in cells throughout the body. Researchers suspect that the SBDS protein may play a role in processing RNA (a molecule that is a chemical cousin of DNA). This protein may also be involved in building ribosomes, which are cellular structures that process the cell's genetic instructions to create proteins. It is unclear how SBDS mutations lead to the major signs and symptoms of Shwachman-Diamond syndrome.
In cases where no SBDS mutation is found, the cause of this disorder is unknown.
Initially, the clinical presentation of SDS may appear similar to cystic fibrosis. However, CF can be excluded with a normal chloride in sweat test but faecal elastase as a marker of pancreatic function will be reduced. The variation, intermittent nature, and potential for long-term improvement of some clinical features make this syndrome difficult to diagnose. SDS may present with either malabsorption, or hematological problems. Rarely, SDS may present with skeletal defects, including severe rib cage abnormalities that lead to difficulty in breathing. Diagnosis is generally based on evidence of exocrine pancreatic dysfunction and neutropenia. Skeletal abnormalities and short stature are characteristics that can be used to support the diagnosis. The gene responsible for the disease has been identified and genetic testing is now available. Though useful in diagnostics, a genetic test does not surmount the need for careful clinical assessment and monitoring of all patients.
Pancreatic exocrine insufficiency may be treated through pancreatic enzyme supplementation, while severe skeletal abnormalities may require surgical intervention. Neutropenia may be treated with granulocyte-colony stimulating factor (GCSF) to boost peripheral neutrophil counts. However, there is ongoing and unresolved concern that this drug could contribute to the development of leukemia. Signs of progressive marrow failure may warrant bone marrow transplantation (BMT). This has been used successfully to treat hematological aspects of disease. However, SDS patients have an elevated occurrence of BMT-related adverse events, including graft-versus-host disease (GVHD) and toxicity relating to the pre-transplant conditioning regimen. In the long run, study of the gene that is mutated in SDS should improve understanding of the molecular basis of disease. This, in turn, may lead to novel therapeutic strategies, including gene therapy and other gene- or protein-based approaches.