Gaucher disease: complexity in a "simple" disorder
Gaucher disease, the recessively inherited deficiency of the enzyme glucocerebrosidase and the most common sphingolipidosis, has both non-neurological and neuronopathic forms and a continuum of diverse clinical manifestations. Studies of genotype-phenotype correlations reveal significant genotypic heterogeneity among clinically similar patients, and vastly different phenotypes among patients with the same mutations. The region surrounding the glucocerebrosidase gene (GBA) on chromosome 1q is particularly gene-rich, with a highly homologous pseudogene sequence 16 kb downstream. Recombination events within the GBA locus contribute to the etiology of some mutations in Gaucher disease. Studies of patients with Gaucher disease and atypical manifestations, including parkinsonism, myoclonic epilepsy, cardiac involvement and collodion skin, seek to define other genetic or environmental factors contributing to the phenotypes. Recent reports demonstrating an association between Gaucher disease and parkinsonism provide an example of heterozygosity for a Mendelian disorder acting as a risk factor for a complex disease. There are rare patients with Gaucher disease and differing genotypes who develop early onset, treatment-refractory parkinsonism. Neuropathology in a group of these patients showed alpha-synuclein-reactive Lewy bodies in brain regions specifically associated with Gaucher disease. Family studies of these probands suggested that the incidence of parkinsonism might be more frequent in obligate heterozygotes. In a complementary finding, the examination of GBA in autopsy samples from individuals with sporadic Parkinson disease identified alterations in the GBA sequence in 14% of the cohort. These studies provide evidence that altered glucocerebrosidase may contribute to a vulnerability to parkinsonism. Moreover, this research demonstrates how insights from rare, single gene disorders like Gaucher disease can provide a window into the etiology of more common, multifactorial genetic diseases.