Ataxia with Telangiectasia

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PatientPlus articles are written by UK doctors and are based on research evidence, UK and European Guidelines. They are designed for health professionals to use, so you may find the language more technical than the condition leaflets.

Synonym: Louis-Bar's syndrome

Ataxia-telangiectasia (A-T) is a rare autosomal recessive disorder.[1] The gene responsible has been localised to 11q22.3-23.1.[2]  A-T is characterised by:[3][4][5] 

  • Progressive neurodegeneration.
  • High risk of malignancy, especially breast cancer in women.
  • Immunodeficiency.
  • Hypersensitivity to ionising radiation.
  • Chromosomal breakage (t(7;14) translocations typically).

There is significant phenotypic heterogeneity, both in clinical presentation (particularly in susceptibility to pulmonary infection, presence and degree of cognitive impairment and predisposition to leukaemia) and rate of progression, reflecting allelic diversity.[6]

A-T is a rare disease:

  • The disease is inherited as an autosomal recessive trait with full penetrance. It has been reported throughout the world.
  • It is sometimes associated with high rates of consanguinity.[7]

Carriers (heterozygotes) of A-T locus mutations have a significantly reduced life expectancy compared with non-carriers, with an increased risk of death from cancer and ischaemic heart disease. Female heterozygotes have a particular risk of breast cancer.[5][8] Other studies have questioned these findings and although they also have confirmed a moderate risk of breast cancer in A-T heterozygotes, did not find large mutation-specific differences in overall risk.[9] 

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The molecular pathology of A-T has been well described in recent times:

  • The classical form of A-T results from the presence of two A-T mutated (ATM) genes on chromosome 11, leading to total loss of the ATM protein (a protein kinase). ATM protein normally recognises DNA damage, and activates the DNA repair machinery and the cell cycle checkpoints to repair and minimise the risk of genetic damage.
  • Understanding ATM's function through the effect of its loss in A-T has provided broader insights into cancer predisposition and some aspects of neurodegeneration.[10]
  • Milder forms of A-T with later-onset or slower-progressing neurological degeneration seem to reflect some retained ATM protein kinase activity due to the impact of different mutations.[11]
  • A-T usually presents by the age of 2 years with a progressive cerebellar ataxia.
  • Other symptoms which may be present include:
    • Lack of facial expression.
    • Tendency to drool.
    • Slow slurred speech.
    • Recurrent infections, particularly sinus and respiratory - due to decreased immunoglobulin A (IgA).
  • Telangiectasias develop from about the age of 3 years and may not be present until the age of 10 years, but will be present in all cases. The telangiectasias may be present anywhere on the body - most usually involving the conjunctivae, pinnae, face, sternum and flexures.
  • Other signs include:
    • Truncal ataxia
    • Oculomotor apraxia
    • Decreased tendon reflexes
    • Pulmonary infections
    • Sinus infections
    • Bulbar dysfunction
    • Recurrent aspiration
    • Gonadal atrophy
    • Dystonia
    • Chorea
    • Sensory neuropathy
    • Growth restriction

There is a need to differentiate from other autosomal recessive ataxias:[13] Friedreich's ataxia (most common in European countries) and much rarer conditions such as ataxia with vitamin E deficiency, abetalipoproteinaemia, Refsum's disease, spastic ataxia, infantile-onset spinocerebellar ataxia and ataxia with oculomotor apraxia.

A-T is usually distinguished by an earlier age of onset, the presence of telangiectasias and the later development of dystonia and chorea and by specific investigations.

  • Serum alpha-fetoprotein level (raised in 90%).
  • Genetic testing for ATM genes and absence of ATM protein in nuclear extracts.
  • In vitro radiosensitivity testing (colony survival assay).

Increased cancer risk

  • On autopsy, almost a half of individuals have a malignancy.
  • Lymphoreticular malignancies (lymphomas and acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL)) dominate in the first two decades followed by solid tumours thereafter.

Immunodeficiency[15]

  • A-T is associated with a high prevalence of laboratory immunological abnormalities - most commonly, IgA, IgG and IgE deficiencies and lymphopenia with reduced B lymphocytes, and reduced CD4 and CD8 T cells.
  • Recurrent upper and lower respiratory tract infections are common. Severe systemic bacterial or viral and opportunistic infections are uncommon in A-T. The immune defect does not appear progressive.

Currently there is no cure and there is no treatment for slowing the progression of the ataxia. A-T is a multisystem disorder requiring multiple therapeutic interventions to slow or halt the neurodegeneration, to prevent or treat the tumours and to correct the associated immunodeficiency. Despite an increased molecular understanding of the disease, we have no effective answer to these challenges. In the future, embryonic stem cell transfer, use of antioxidants and targeted gene therapy may offer some hope.[6]

Pragmatic treatment of the condition consists of the following:

  • Neurological symptoms are difficult to treat. Treatment of basal ganglia dysfunction can be attempted with L-DOPA derivatives, dopamine antagonists and anticholinergics. Loss of balance, and speech and co-ordination problems may be improved by the use of amantadine, fluoxetine and buspirone. Tremors can be treated with gabapentin, clonazepam and propranolol.[6]
  • Prompt treatment of infections and, in some cases, use of prophylactic antibiotics. Regular injection of immunoglobulins has been used in some centres. Fetal thymus implants have not been shown to be beneficial.
  • Screening for swallow-related problems and aspiration. Consider the use of thickeners and enteral feeding.[6]
  • Some advocate regular screening for malignancies with FBC and serum tumour markers.
  • Multidisciplinary team involvement - input of physiotherapy, speech and occupational therapists is particularly important.
  • High-dose vitamin regimes, folic acid and alpha lipoic acid have all been advocated due to their claimed anti-cancer properties. However, multivitamins do not correct the ataxia of A-T.[6]
  • Avoid X-rays wherever possible, unless treatment is dependent on them and an alternative (such as MRI or ultrasound) is not possible.
Consider the increased risk to adult members of families with A-T of cancer. Consider referral to genetics and earlier entry into screening programmes.
  • A-T is an incurable and unremitting disease.
  • Most A-T children are wheelchair-dependent by their teens although milder variants do exist.
  • Communication becomes progressively difficult as handwriting, speech and eye movement control deteriorates.
  • Median survival is 19-25 years (wide range) with death due to cancer and respiratory failure.[16]

Prenatal testing is available for families considered at risk, but is not carried out routinely. The ATM gene is too large to allow practical mutational analysis for clinical screening.[10]

Further reading & references

  1. Chaudhary MW, Al-Baradie RS; Ataxia-telangiectasia: future prospects. Appl Clin Genet. 2014 Sep 10;7:159-67. doi: 10.2147/TACG.S35759. eCollection 2014.
  2. Ambrose M, Gatti RA; Pathogenesis of ataxia-telangiectasia: the next generation of ATM functions. Blood. 2013 May 16;121(20):4036-45. doi: 10.1182/blood-2012-09-456897. Epub 2013 Feb 25.
  3. Jeong H, Huh HJ, Youn J, et al; Ataxia-telangiectasia with novel splicing mutations in the ATM gene. Ann Lab Med. 2014 Jan;34(1):80-4. doi: 10.3343/alm.2014.34.1.80. Epub 2013 Dec 6.
  4. Demuth I, Dutrannoy V, Marques W Jr, et al; New mutations in the ATM gene and clinical data of 25 AT patients. Neurogenetics. 2011 Nov;12(4):273-82. doi: 10.1007/s10048-011-0299-0. Epub 2011 Oct 2.
  5. Mavrou A, Tsangaris GT, Roma E, et al; The ATM gene and ataxia telangiectasia. Anticancer Res. 2008 Jan-Feb;28(1B):401-5.
  6. Lavin MF, Gueven N, Bottle S, et al; Current and potential therapeutic strategies for the treatment of ataxia-telangiectasia. Br Med Bull. 2007;81-82:129-47. Epub 2007 Jun 23.
  7. Rezaei N, Pourpak Z, Aghamohammadi A, et al; Consanguinity in primary immunodeficiency disorders; the report from Iranian primary immunodeficiency registry.; Am J Reprod Immunol. 2006 Aug;56(2):145-51.
  8. Nusbaum R, Vogel KJ, Ready K; Susceptibility to breast cancer: hereditary syndromes and low penetrance genes. Breast Dis. 2006-2007;27:21-50.
  9. Thompson D, Duedal S, Kirner J, et al; Cancer risks and mortality in heterozygous ATM mutation carriers. J Natl Cancer Inst. 2005 Jun 1;97(11):813-22.
  10. Lavin MF; Ataxia-telangiectasia: from a rare disorder to a paradigm for cell signalling and cancer. Nat Rev Mol Cell Biol. 2008 Oct;9(10):759-69.
  11. Taylor AM, Byrd PJ; Molecular pathology of ataxia telangiectasia.; J Clin Pathol. 2005 Oct;58(10):1009-15.
  12. Shaikh AG, Zee DS, Mandir AS, et al; Disorders of Upper Limb Movements in Ataxia-Telangiectasia. PLoS One. 2013 Jun 27;8(6):e67042. Print 2013.
  13. Ruano L, Melo C, Silva MC, et al; The global epidemiology of hereditary ataxia and spastic paraplegia: a systematic review of prevalence studies. Neuroepidemiology. 2014;42(3):174-83. doi: 10.1159/000358801. Epub 2014 Mar 5.
  14. Perlman S, Becker-Catania S, Gatti RA; Ataxia-telangiectasia: diagnosis and treatment.; Semin Pediatr Neurol. 2003 Sep;10(3):173-82.
  15. Nowak-Wegrzyn A, Crawford TO, Winkelstein JA, et al; Immunodeficiency and infections in ataxia-telangiectasia.; J Pediatr. 2004 Apr;144(4):505-11.
  16. Crawford TO, Skolasky RL, Fernandez R, et al; Survival probability in ataxia telangiectasia.; Arch Dis Child. 2006 Jul;91(7):610-1.

Disclaimer: This article is for information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions. EMIS has used all reasonable care in compiling the information but make no warranty as to its accuracy. Consult a doctor or other health care professional for diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions. For details see our conditions.

Original Author:
Dr Chloe Borton
Current Version:
Peer Reviewer:
Dr John Cox
Document ID:
1290 (v23)
Last Checked:
17/12/2014
Next Review:
16/12/2019

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