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How common is phenylketonuria?
The occurrence of PKU varies among ethnic groups and geographic regions worldwide. In the United States, PKU occurs in 1 in 10,000 to 15,000 newborns. Most cases of PKU are detected shortly after birth by newborn screening, and treatment is started promptly. As a result, the severe signs and symptoms of classic PKU are rarely seen.
What genes are related to phenylketonuria?
Mutations in the PAH gene cause phenylketonuria.
The PAH gene provides instructions for making an enzyme called phenylalanine hydroxylase. This enzyme converts the amino acid phenylalanine to other important compounds in the body. If gene mutations reduce the activity of phenylalanine hydroxylase, phenylalanine from the diet is not processed effectively. As a result, this amino acid can build up to toxic levels in the blood and other tissues. Because nerve cells in the brain are particularly sensitive to phenylalanine levels, excessive amounts of this substance can cause brain damage.
Classic PKU, the most severe form of the disorder, occurs when phenylalanine hydroxylase activity is severely reduced or absent. People with untreated classic PKU have levels of phenylalanine high enough to cause severe brain damage and other serious medical problems. Mutations in the PAH gene that allow the enzyme to retain some activity result in milder versions of this condition, such as variant PKU or non-PKU hyperphenylalaninemia.
Changes in other genes may influence the severity of PKU, but little is known about these additional genetic factors.
How do people inherit phenylketonuria?
This condition is inherited in an autosomal recessive pattern, which means both copies of the gene in each cell have mutations. The parents of an individual with an autosomal recessive condition each carry one copy of the mutated gene, but they typically do not show signs and symptoms of the condition.