What causes Wilson disease?

Updated: Feb 14, 2019
  • Author: Richard K Gilroy, MBBS, FRACP; Chief Editor: Praveen K Roy, MD, AGAF  more...
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The normal estimated total body copper content is 50-100 mg, and the average daily intake 2-5 mg, depending on an individual’s intake of legumes, meats, shellfish, and chocolate. Copper is an important component of several metabolic enzymes, including lysyl oxidase, cytochrome c oxidase, superoxide dismutase, and dopamine beta-hydroxylase.

Around 50%-75% of intestinal copper is absorbed and then transported to the hepatocytes. This pathway is intact in Wilson disease. After copper reaches the hepatocyte, it is incorporated into copper-containing enzymes and copper-binding proteins (CBPs), including ceruloplasmin, a serum ferroxidase. Within the liver, the majority of in-infancy (< 6 mo) CBP granules staining positive may be normal. After six months, positive staining of CBPs for copper is almost exclusively found in association with liver diseases such as Wilson disease, chronic biliary disorders (eg, primary biliary cirrhosis, primary sclerosing cholangitis), cirrhosis/extensive fibrosis, and primary liver tumors (most often fibrolamellar hepatocellular carcinoma).

Excess copper may be rendered nontoxic by forming complexes with apo-metallothionein to produce copper-metallothionein, or it may be excreted into bile. Normal copper balance is maintained by regulation of excretion, rather than absorption, and the predominant route of copper excretion (approximately 95%) is hepatobiliary in nature.

In Wilson disease, the processes of incorporation of copper into ceruloplasmin and excretion of excess copper into bile are impaired. [3] The transport of copper by the copper-transporting P-type ATPase is defective in Wilson disease secondary to one of several mutations in the ATP7B gene. [4] By genetic linkage studies, Bowcock and colleagues narrowed the assignment of the Wilson disease locus to 13q14-q21. [5]

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