Genetic Liver Disease (2023)


A number of presentations held during the 54th Annual Meeting of the American Association for the Study of Liver Diseases (AASLD) addressed important advances in genetic/metabolic liver disease. A clearer understanding of genetic liver disease will help guide new diagnostic and management strategies for treating liver diseases that affect patients of all ages. The observations presented at this year's meeting will therefore open new avenues for research into hepatobiliary physiology and pathophysiology.

This report discusses those studies that provided new insights into the pathophysiology, diagnosis, and treatment of 3 important genetic/ metabolic disorders of the liver: Wilson's disease, alpha-1-antitrypsin (alpha-1-AT) deficiency, and progressive familial intrahepatic cholestasis (PFIC), a heterozygous group of conditions.

Wilson's DiseaseClinical Features

Wilson's disease is an autosomal recessive copper storage disorder caused by mutations of the ATP7B gene on chromosome 13. The disease is characterized by abnormal biliary copper excretion and hypoceruloplasminemia. The clinical presentation of Wilson's disease is highly variable, ranging from acute or chronic liver disease to a diverse pattern of neurologic disease. Previous genotype/phenotype correlations have been hampered by extreme heterogeneity in the populations studied and of ATP7B mutations. Two studies presented during these meeting proceedings revisited this issue.

Genotype-phenotype correlations. Genotype-phenotype correlations were investigated in a large number of patients with Wilson's disease by Ferenci and colleagues.[1] Samples were obtained from 721 patients from various regions in the world (Germany, Austria, Benelux, Hungary, Turkey, Slovakia, Balkan countries, and other European and non-European areas). Overall, 620 subjects were index patients and 101 were detected during family screening. In this large study cohort, the H1069Q/H1069Q mutation was found in 28% of patients; all other mutations were rare. The only significant phenotypic-genotypic correlations were found for H1069Q homozygotes and H1069Q/3400delC, which was more frequently associated with late-onset neurologic disease. In addition, exon 8 mutations were more frequently associated with hepatic Wilson's disease. Among siblings, one third presented with the same symptoms. The remaining siblings were asymptomatic, including the monozygous twin sister of a patient with severe neurologic disease. Thus, most mutations in patients with Wilson's disease are rare, and no clear phenotype-genotype correlations were documented.

Seela and colleagues[2] delineated the clinical and genetic characteristics of a large cohort of patients with Wilson's disease (n = 220) from a single ethnic group in Bangalore, South India. Mean age of presentation was 14 ± 8 years in men and 12 ± 8 years in women. The majority (65%) presented with neurologic symptoms; 15% had hepatic manifestations. The remainder of the patients were diagnosed through family screening. The mean serum ceruloplasmin level was 6 ± 0.91 mg/dL (normal range, 15-35 mg/dL) and the mean urinary copper excretion was 399 ± 44 micrograms[mcg]/24 hours (normal, < 70 mcg/24 hours). Kayser-Fleischer rings were present in 95% of patients, but overt signs of chronic liver disease were found in only 16%. Hepatic presentation occurred earlier, at mean age 11.8 ± 4.9 years, compared with neurologic presentation at 16 ± 9 years (P < .05). Neurologic presentation in the Bangalore cohort occurred significantly earlier than in other populations described in the literature (at 30-50 years of age). There was a diverse pattern of neurologic manifestations: 65% with parkinsonism, 23% with tremors, 20% had dysarthria, 3% had mental retardation, 2% had gait disturbances, and 2% had delayed milestones.

Apparently factors other than ATP7B mutations may modify the phenotypic presentation of Wilson's disease.


Copper transport in hepatocytes is mediated by the ATP7B copper pump, which is required for cuproenzyme synthesis and biliary copper excretion. Mutations in the ATP7B gene lead to impaired biliary excretion of copper and multiorgan copper toxicosis.

Modulation of copper transport. In yeast, copper transport processes are dependent on the activity of an intracellular chloride channel that shunts the voltage gradient generated by electrogenic copper pumping. Whether chloride channels modulate copper transport in hepatocytes and other mammalian cells is not known.

Wang and colleagues[3] sought to determine if intracellular chloride channels can promote copper incorporation into ceruloplasmin. Copper incorporation into ceruloplasmin is chloride-dependent because chloride channels are required to shunt the potential of electrogenic copper transport. Chloride channel protein (ClC)-4 is the intracellular chloride channel most abundantly expressed in hepatocytes; its expression increases copper incorporation into ceruloplasmin, particularly when copper availability is limiting. The investigators proposed that intracellular chloride channels may function to modulate copper transport rates under conditions of abnormal hepatic copper processing, such as in Wilson's disease. This observation offers a novel therapeutic strategy -- pharmacologic modulation of chloride channels.

Molecular mechanisms. In Wilson's disease, mutations in the ATP7B gene lead to hepatic accumulation of copper. The accumulated copper becomes toxic when the hepatic binding capacity is exceeded, leading to oxidative stress and ultimately to hepatic injury and acute liver failure. Several proteins are presumably involved in dealing with the excess copper and the oxidative stress. Using a proteomics approach, Roelofsen and colleagues[4] characterized copper-induced changes in protein expression in human HepG2 hepatoma cells as an in vitro model of copper overload. They demonstrated that both the intracellular protein profile as well as the excreted protein pattern is substantially altered as a reaction to a high extracellular copper concentration. In addition, 9 proteins with high-affinity copper-binding characteristics were discovered; however, their exact cellular roles are undetermined. These findings indicate that HepG2 cells provide a sensitive human in vitro model to study effects of copper overload on hepatic protein expression.

Mitochondrial injury in Wilson's disease. Diverse structural changes in liver cell mitochondria are typical of Wilson's disease, including variability in size and shape, increased density of matrix, pleomorphic inclusions, and prominent cystic dilatation of the tips of the cristae. Roberts and colleagues[5] examined the functional basis for these structural abnormalities and assessed whether they were pathognomonic of Wilson's disease. These investigators used the tx-j mouse (G712D mutation in Atp7b gene on C3H/FeJ background), an accepted murine model for Wilson's disease, in which the hepatic histology becomes abnormal at about 5 months of life. Hepatic parenchymal copper concentration was found to be 40-fold above normal (424 mcg/g dry weight) at 1 month of age, was 789 mcg/g at 2-4 months of age, and was 538 mcg/g at 5-6 months. Electron microscopy showed typical mitochondrial abnormalities, specifically cystic dilatation of tips of cristae, at 4 and 6 months. The amount of mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) was similar to that in control mice at 1-2 months and then progressively declined over ages 3-6 months. Thus, the study authors concluded that Wilson's disease is a mtDNA depletion disorder. Ultrastructural changes in Wilson's disease are not strictly pathognomonic for the disorder; instead, they reflect the mtDNA depletion. These investigators postulated that Wilson's disease is an example of acquired mtDNA depletion due to copper toxicity.

These data may provide new insights into the molecular mechanisms leading to hepatic dysfunction in Wilson's disease.


Because Wilson's disease is extremely variable in its presenting manifestations and in age of onset, the clinical and biochemical features do not always confirm the diagnosis for this treatable disease.

Role of mutation analysis in diagnosis. Cox and colleagues[6] examined the utility of molecular diagnosis, using mutation and marker analysis, as an aid in the diagnosis of clinically affected individuals with Wilson's disease and for asymptomatic siblings. They compared the traditional diagnostic features and mutation results in 99 definitively diagnosed patients with Wilson's disease. In 60 patients homozygous for 1 of the more than 250 described mutations, they examined the association between mutation type and clinical expression. Presymptomatic siblings were studied in 55 families in which the patient had a firm diagnosis of Wilson's disease. At least 1 mutation in the ATP7B gene was identified in 95% of patients with hepatic onset and in 86% with neurologic onset; mean age of hepatic onset was 13.4 years, and mean age of neurologic onset was 20.2 years. Kayser-Fleischer rings were reported in 89% of definitively diagnosed patients (81% in hepatic onset, 100% in neurologic onset). However, in patients whose diagnosis was initially queried, then confirmed by mutation identification, only 57% had Kayser-Fleischer rings (50% in hepatic onset, 69% in neurologic onset). Urinary copper excretion was > 1.6 micromoles/day in all "definite" patients, but was below this value in 3 of 25 "queried" patients. Serum ceruloplasmin concentration was below normal in all 28 definite neurologic cases, but was normal in 3 of 31 definite hepatic cases. In query cases, 4 of 16 patients with neurologic onset and 11 of 32 with hepatic onset had a normal serum ceruloplasmin level.

The type of mutation influences the age and type of onset of the disease.[6] Among 60 patients homozygous for the same mutation, the only individuals for whom clinical phenotype-genotype correlation could be reliably examined, the age of onset was found to be 11.4 years for those with the most deleterious mutations (deletions, insertions, and nonsense), with 11 patients showing hepatic and 4 showing neurologic onset. Two patients with splice-site mutations had age of onset of 3 and 45 years. In 16 subjects with various missense mutations, the mean age of onset was 17.8 years. Patients with the common His1069Gln mutation had a mean age of onset of 20.3 years. In 54 families studied, 22 siblings of patients were confirmed or newly diagnosed as affected, and in many cases, the biochemical results had not been definitive.

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The conclusion that one must draw from these important data is that DNA mutation analysis is an important adjunct to clinical and biochemical assessment because traditionally used features are not consistently abnormal. Mutation analysis is not trivial, as there are currently more than 250 mutations known. Because of the uncertainty of biochemical signs in asymptomatic patients, DNA analysis using markers flanking the ATP7B gene is essential for reliable diagnosis of Wilson's disease in the presymptomatic phase in siblings, and does not require knowledge of the specific mutation present.


The management of patients with Wilson's disease follows the rules established for many metabolic liver diseases. The goal is to decrease the intake of the substrate by limiting copper in the diet, alter copper absorption via competition, shunt copper from its usual metabolic pathway by chelation, and limit the toxic effects of copper by supplying antioxidants to the depleted cells.

Chelation therapy. In the Bangalore Wilson's disease phenotype reported by Seela and colleagues,[2] chelation therapy resulted in complete remission of symptoms in 70% of cases. Exacerbation of neurologic symptoms occurred in only 4% of patients. There was no response to therapy in 15% of individuals, but neurologic symptoms remained stable. Further delineation of this cohort may provide important insights into aberrant copper metabolism and allow more effective management.

Gene therapy. The long-term approach to the management of patients with metabolic liver disease is gene therapy. Merle and colleagues[7] examined the feasibility of lentiviral vector-mediated gene therapy for Wilson's disease in an animal model (LEC rat). A recombinant lentiviral vector carrying a human Wilson's disease gene under control of the phosphoglycerokinase (PGK) promoter was cloned (PGK-hWD) and evaluated both in vitro and in vivo. Primary LEC rat hepatocytes transduced with PGK-hWD expressed ATP7B, demonstrating the feasibility of ATP7B transfer to primary rat hepatocytes by lentiviral in vitro transduction. Semiquantitative reverse transcriptase polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) analysis was performed on liver-tissue of LEC rats at different time-points after systemic lentiviral PGK-hWD transduction and after transplantation of ex vivo transduced LEC-rat hepatocytes. For both tested approaches, these investigators found stable mRNA expression in the treated rats. ATP7B expression could be observed in hepatocytes of all treated rats up to 2 months. However, in hepatocyte-transplanted rats, the expression level diminished with time after transplantation. These results demonstrate the feasibility of lentiviral vector-mediated gene therapy of Wilson's disease in an animal model. Systemic vector administration leads to stable gene transfer and expression. In contrast, gene expression after transplantation of transduced hepatocytes reaches higher maximal levels, but diminishes with time.

Therefore, the key to managing patients with Wilson's disease is early diagnosis and prompt institution of chelation therapy. It is also clear that gene therapy is feasible and represents the hope for the future of treatment.

Alpha-1-AT DeficiencyClinical Features

Alpha-1-AT deficiency, one of the most common inherited metabolic disorders, has the potential to cause severe liver and lung injury. More than 70 genetic variants of alpha-1-AT have been described; these differ by point mutations comprising the so-called Pi (proteinase inhibitor) system. Pi*M is the most common allele and is associated with the normally-functioning alpha-1-AT molecule. Pi*Z is the most common deficient type, with decreased serum alpha-1-AT concentrations secondary to retention of the mutant Z protein in the endoplasmic reticulum in the hepatocyte. Homozygous (ZZ) alpha-1-AT deficiency is an important cause of liver disease in children, and can also cause chronic liver disease and hepatocellular carcinoma in adults. There is increasing evidence that carriers of a heterozygous alpha-1-AT phenotype (PiMZ or PiSZ) are also at an increased risk of developing cirrhosis and liver failure. These issues were addressed during the core proceedings of this year's AASLD meeting.

Pathogenetic role of alpha-1-AT polymorphisms. Berg and colleagues[8] set out to elucidate the pathogenetic role of alpha-1-AT polymorphisms by investigating alpha-1-AT allele frequencies in a large group of patients (n = 1600) with compensated and decompensated liver diseases of different etiologies as well as in 185 healthy control subjects. Their study included 215 patients with alcoholic liver disease, 647 patients with hepatitis C, 199 with hepatitis B, 104 with autoimmune hepatitis, 216 patients with primary biliary cirrhosis or primary sclerosing cholangitis, 62 with cryptogenic cirrhosis, 52 with nonalcoholic liver disease, and 105 patients with various other liver diseases.

Hepatocellular carcinoma was present in 78 of the 1600 patients studied (5%). Liver transplantation was performed in 757 patients (47%) because of decompensated liver disease. Pi*M, Z and S allele distribution did not differ significantly between patients with liver diseases and healthy controls (96%, 2%, and 2% vs 95%, 2%, and 3%, respectively). There was also no significant difference in the Pi*Z allele frequency between patients with decompensated cirrhosis compared with patients with compensated liver disease (2.6% vs 1.8%; P = .22) or patients with and without hepatocellular carcinoma (2.6% vs 2.2%; P = .9). However, alpha-1-AT allele distribution differed significantly between the patients with different liver disorders (P = .02). The latter was primarily due to a significant over representation of Pi*Z allele in the group of patients with alcoholic and cryptogenic liver disease (4.9% and 5.6% Pi*Z allele, respectively). When they compared all patients with histologically proven cirrhosis (n = 687) with those classified as having no cirrhosis (n = 913), a trend for a higher Pi*Z allele frequency in the cirrhosis group was observed (2.9% vs 1.7%; P = .057). However, this association could not be confirmed when patients with alcoholic cirrhosis were excluded from the analysis.

This study confirms previous reports showing higher Pi*Z allele frequencies in patients with alcoholic and cryptogenic cirrhosis. These data indicate that individuals bearing the Pi*Z allele are more prone to develop severe alcoholic liver disease. There is, however, no general association of chronic liver disease development or severity of liver disease in carriers of a single Pi*Z allele. This study offers guidelines for counseling.


The alpha-1-AT mutant Z gene encodes a mutant protein that accumulates in the endoplasmic reticulum of hepatocytes rather than being secreted into the serum. Liver injury is presumably caused by accumulation of the alpha-1-AT mutant Z protein within hepatocytes; this accumulation triggers downstream intracellular injury pathways. However, the development of clinical liver disease among ZZ homozygotes is highly variable, suggesting that there is a significant influence of other genetic or environmental factors that contribute to liver injury.

Mechanism of liver injury. Rudnick and colleagues[9] tested the hypothesis that nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) could be cofactors in the development of liver injury in alpha-1-AT deficiency. They used the Pi*Z mouse, a model transgenic for the human alpha-1-AT mutant Z gene in which gene expression is regulated by the human alpha-1-AT promoter sequences. These investigators showed that indomethacin administered in typically nontoxic doses to Pi*Z mice was associated with increased alpha-1-AT gene transcription as determined by RT-PCR analysis of alpha-1-AT mRNA levels. Indomethacin also increased hepatic alpha-1-AT mutant Z protein content, as shown by increased globular accumulations of alpha-1-AT in histopathologic sections and by quantitative immunoblot analysis of liver lysates for human alpha-1-AT protein. Furthermore, indomethacin treatment in Pi*Z mice was associated with increased hepatic injury and increased mortality compared with that seen in vehicle-treated Pi*Z mice and indomethacin-treated wild-type mice. Evidence of hepatic injury included focal hepatocellular necrosis, apoptosis, and increased hepatocellular proliferation as a compensatory response to increased cell death.

These data suggest that environmental factors, such as exogenous medication administration, can significantly potentiate the liver injury associated with alpha-1-AT mutant Z hepatic accumulation, and that NSAIDs may be especially injurious to ZZ patients, possibly by mediating increased alpha-1-AT synthesis. This is another opportunity for prevention.


In human alpha-1-AT deficiency, the associated lung disease is thought to reflect insufficient normal alpha-1-AT activity in the circulation, whereas the related liver disease occurs because abnormal alpha-1-AT accumulates in hepatocytes. Are there strategies that could limit the accumulation or enhance the degradation of the stored protein and thereby reduce liver injury?

Accelerated destruction. Duan and colleagues[10] evaluated the efficacy of ribozyme-mediated destruction of targeted human Pi*Z transcripts in vivo. Quantitative RT-PCR analysis revealed that the average reduction of human Pi*Z transcripts in livers was 57 ±18% (P = .05) in mice that were killed between 6 and 16 weeks after transduction with the ribozyme construct (recombinant SV40 virus containing a ribozyme designed to target human alpha-1-AT mRNA). The administration of the ribozyme lowered serum levels of human alpha-1-AT to 42 ± 12% of pretreatment values (P < .01) 3-25 weeks post transduction, whereas serum human alpha-1-AT levels in transgenic mice not treated with the ribozyme were unchanged. Serum human alpha-1-AT level was reduced by 99% at 6 weeks, and human alpha-1-AT Pi*Z transcripts were undetectable by quantitative RT-PCR from the mouse liver. Moreover, quantitative RT-PCR showed that the levels of mouse alpha-1-AT, albumin, and beta-actin mRNA remained the same as in control mice despite the complete loss of the human alpha-1-AT transcripts.

These findings demonstrate that an SV40-derived construct containing a ribozyme is highly effective in lowering human alpha-1-AT mRNA and protein levels in vivo. This represents the first step in the development of a clinically valuable gene therapy approach for alpha-1-AT deficiency.

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Progressive Familial Intrahepatic Cholestasis (PFIC)

There is a wide spectrum of inherited intrahepatic cholestatic disease, ranging from neonatal cholestasis to cirrhosis in adults. These syndromes are of great theoretic interest; detailed study of these "experiments of nature'' has enhanced our understanding of hepatic excretory function and bile acid metabolism.

Clinical Features

The PFIC syndromes are a heterozygous group of conditions that typically lead to end-stage liver disease by the second decade of life. These syndromes are caused by dysfunction of specific hepatocanalicular transport systems:

  • Familial intrahepatic cholestasis gene 1 (FIC1; also known as ATP8B1);

  • Bile salt export pump (BSEP); and

  • Multidrug resistance 3 glycoprotein (MDR3; also known as ABCB4).

Although traditionally thought of as "pediatric liver diseases," various forms of PFIC can appear at all ages and may underlie/predispose to adult-onset disease, such as:

  • Progressive familial intrahepatic cholestasis (PFIC);

  • Benign recurrent intrahepatic cholestasis(BRIC);

  • Intrahepatic cholestasis of pregnancy (ICP); and

  • Cholesterol cholelithiasis.

Epidemiology of PFIC types 1 and 2. FIC1 deficiency (also known as PFIC type 1) and BSEP deficiency (also known as PFIC type 2) comprise the 2 main forms of PFIC. Both of these forms of PFIC are endemic in certain regions of Israel and Saudi Arabia, but to date, few mutations have been described in these populations.

In a collaborative study, Antoniou and colleagues[11] defined the genetic basis of PFIC. Linkage analysis was carried out on a group of 42 consanguineous families, 33 Saudi Arabian and 9 Israeli. Closely linked and intragenic microsatellite markers were used to generate haplotypes across the ATP8B1 (FIC1) and ABCB11 (BSEP) chromosomal regions. Segregation analysis was consistent with 23 families being linked to ABCB11 and 5 families to ATP8B1; 4 were uninformative and 10 were linked to neither locus. Three families were found to have the only recurring ABCB11 mutation identified in this population, G982R. Mutation screening of linked families by single-strand conformation polymorphism and direct sequencing suggested defects in 13 families. These included 2 novel missense changes in exons 13 and 25 of ABCB11.

These observations are important because the response to both medical and surgical intervention has been shown to be dependent not only on the type of PFIC present, but also on the specific mutation.

Role of mutations in specific hepatocanalicular transporters in ICP. ICP is a liver disorder associated with increased risk of intrauterine fetal death and prematurity. ICP usually occurs in late pregnancy and resolves after delivery. The main biochemical finding is an increase in total serum bile acid concentrations; other laboratory findings reflecting cholestasis are an elevation in serum alkaline phosphatase and total bilirubin, while gamma-glutamyltransferase (gamma-GT) levels are normal.

The cause of ICP is unknown, but there is increasing evidence that genetically determined dysfunction in the canalicular ATP-binding cassette (ABC)-transporters bile salt export pump (BSEP, ABC11) and/or MDR3 (ABCB4) might be risk factors for the development of ICP. Impaired expression and function of these transporters, which are the main factors in hepatocellular bile formation, have been shown to be the cause of different hereditary cholestatic syndromes, such as PFIC1, 2, or 3.

Pauli-Magnus and colleagues[12] described the extent of genetic variability in BSEP and MDR3 in 42 women with ICP and 80 healthy pregnant controls, and searched for disease-causing mutations. Criteria for diagnosis of ICP included pruritus, increased bile acid concentrations in serum, and spontaneous resolution of symptoms after delivery. BSEP and MDR3 sequencing revealed several new variant sites in both genes. For BSEP, 23 of 26 (88%) variant sites detected in ICP patients were also present in the control group. However, in the case of MDR3, only 30 of 46 (65%) variant sites were present in the control group. Variant sites included 6 nonsynonymous variants in BSEP and 8 in MDR3, 3 of which were specific for the ICP group (in BSEP: exon 18, R698H; in MDR3: exon 9, S320F; and in exon 18, G762E). Furthermore, in MDR3, 5 new heterozygous splicing-consensus mutations were detected, all of which were unique to the ICP subgroup. One patient with ICP and a new MDR3 splicing mutation had a familial cholestatic syndrome associated with this mutation.

This is the first study to determine the extent of genetic variation in BSEP and MDR3 in a large collective of women with ICP and healthy control women. Although most of the mutations detected in BSEP were found in both populations, a greater number of ICP-specific variants were detected in MDR3, including 2 highly conserved nonsynonymous and 5 splicing-consensus sites.

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These findings further support a pathogenic role for MDR3 genetic variability in ICP. Analysis of population-specific variant frequencies as well as the BSEP and MDR3 haplotype structure in these groups will allow a more detailed analysis of mutations that might represent a susceptibility factor for the development of ICP.

Role of mutations in specific hepatocanalicular transporters in primary biliary cirrhosis (PBC) and primary sclerosing cholangitis (PSC). There is ongoing discussion regarding whether genetically determined dysfunction may also play a pathogenetic role in PBC and PSC. PBC and PSC are characterized by a cholestatic pattern of liver damage with elevated serum bile acids. Such a pattern is similar to that observed in hereditary or acquired dysfunction of the hepatic canalicular membrane transporters BSEP and MDR3, which secrete cholephilic compounds into the bile canaliculus.

Pauli-Magnus and colleagues[13] tested whether sequence diversity and haplotype structure of BSEP and MDR3 in patients with PBC and PSC were different from that observed in healthy volunteers with the same ethnic background. DNA samples from 93 healthy white individuals, 70 patients with PBC, and 46 patients with PSC were screened for genetic variations in BSEP and MDR3. The total number of different haplotypes as well as the relative fraction of the most common haplotypes were similar in all 3 groups for BSEP and MDR3. Also, the number of population-specific haplotypes accounted for a minority of alleles and did not differ between the 3 groups. Furthermore, similar patterns of linkage disequilibrium were found in all 3 patient populations. These investigators concluded that patients with PBC and patients with PSC did not show a significant deviation in haplotype structure in BSEP and MDR3 from that observed in healthy white controls.

These data do not support a role for BSEP and MDR3 genetic variation in the pathogenesis of PBC and PSC, because variant segregation and haplotype structure of both genes did not differ from the pattern observed in healthy controls. Although a functional impact of some of these rare variants or haplotypes cannot be ruled out, they cannot serve as a common denominator of disease pathogenesis in PBC and PSC. Alternatively, the cumulative data provide a basis for the study of phenotypic differences in BSEP and MDR3 genetic variation in the normal population, which may help to define genotypes associated with an increased risk of developing cholestasis.


PFIC-1 and PFIC-2. The genetic defect in PFIC-1 has been mapped to a locus on chromosome 18q21-q22, a region encoding FIC1 (ATP8B1), a P-type ATPase. Thus ATP8B1 is mutated in a form of low gamma-GT intrahepatic cholestasis formerly called "Byler's syndrome."

PFIC-2, another form of low gamma-GT intrahepatic cholestasis, is caused by deficiency in BSEP, the major bile salt transporter in human liver, due to mutations in the ABCB11 (BSEP) gene. The chromosomal locus is 2q24

Molecular mechanism of PFIC-1 and PFIC-2. Bile sampled from gallbladders of individuals with intrahepatic cholestasis due to mutation in ABCB11 (PFIC-2) is deficient in primary bile acids. This can be ascribed to the fact that the ABCB11 gene encodes the bile salt export protein, BSEP. Similar deficiency of biliary bile acids in mature bile is found in intrahepatic cholestasis owing to mutation in the ATP8B1 gene (PFIC-1). The ATP8B1 gene encodes a putative aminophospholipid "flippase," FIC1, hypothesized to maintain compositional asymmetry between leaflets of cell membranes. FIC1 may be necessary for optimal function or trafficking of membrane-inserted proteins. Some canalicular proteins appear deficiently expressed in persons with ATP8B1 disease. The question, therefore, is whether deficiency in BSEP expression at the canaliculus underlies the lack of primary bile acids in bile.

Knisely and colleagues[14] evaluated expression at the canaliculus of BSEP in formalin-fixed, paraffin-embedded archival liver-biopsy or hepatectomy materials from 20 patients of varying ages with intrahepatic cholestasis. Ten had documented ATP8B1 (PFIC-1) gene mutations and 10 had documented ABCB11 (PFIC-2) gene mutations. In the 10 patients with ATP8B1 gene mutations, expression of BSEP was indistinguishable from that in controls; in the 9 patients with ABCB11 gene mutations, expression of BSEP was absent. Function of BSEP was intact in persons with ATP8B1 gene disease, as judged by findings at liver biopsy on presentation in infancy. While individuals with ABCB11 gene mutation have giant-cell hepatitis with hepatocellular cholestasis and necrosis, those with ATP8B1 mutation have bland canalicular cholestasis and remarkably little hepatocellular disarray. This suggests that in ATP8B1 gene disease, toxic bile acids do not accumulate within hepatocytes to the extent that it occurs in ABCB11 gene disease. These findings indicate that not all canalicular proteins are abnormally expressed in ATP8B1 gene disease, and that cholestasis in ATP8B1 gene disease is not due to disruption of canalicular transporter-protein expression. The study authors speculated that individuals with ATP8B1 gene disease do not downregulate the sodium-dependent apical bile acid transporter (ASBT) in the terminal ileum. If in ATP8B1 gene disease bile acids are normally exported into the canaliculus, yet are deficient in mature bile, it may be due in part to their absorption in excess during transit past cholangiocytes in which ASBT is abnormally regulated. The clinical implication of these findings is unclear at present.

PFIC-3. PFIC-3 is associated with mutations in the MDR3 gene, also designated ABCB4, localized on chromosome 7q21, and is a phospholipid (PL) transporter. The clinical manifestations of MDR3 mutations are highly variable: heterozygous mutations are associated with ICP, drug-induced cholestasis, and cholesterol lithiasis (caused by the high lithogenicity of bile due to the low PL content). Rosmorduc and colleagues[15] described an MDR3 gene defect in adults with symptomatic intrahepatic and gallbladder cholesterol cholelithiasis. Thus, MDR3 gene mutations represent a genetic factor involved in a form of symptomatic cholesterol cholelithiasis in adult patients (low phospholipid-associated cholelithiasis [LPAC]).

Lucena and colleagues[16] reported a woman who presented as an adolescent with cholelithiasis. She later developed recurrent ICP and finally biliary cirrhosis at age 47. She and her daughter (who also had ICP) were heterozygous for an MDR3 mutation. Thus, 3 consecutive diseases were associated with an MDR3 mutation; this led to end-stage cirrhosis after the fourth decade of life.


Because the efficacy of medical therapy is poor, a number of surgical procedures have been successfully used in the management of patients with PFIC-1 and PFIC-2.[17,18] Biliary diversion and ileal exclusion are increasingly being used as pretransplant surgical interventions. It is proposed that these surgical procedures may significantly delay, or even obviate, the necessity of liver transplantation. However, results are contradictory and center-specific, and a sufficient attempt has not been made to correlate outcome with the type of PFIC present.

Pawlikowska and colleagues[19] presented data emerging from a multicenter study of over 100 patients to correlate clinical and biochemical data (including information on surgical treatment outcomes) with genotype in these disorders. Biliary diversion has been performed in 18 patients with BSEP (mean age at surgery, 5.5 years; none had progressed to cirrhosis at time of surgery). Fifteen patients had a positive outcome with biliary diversion, including significant and sustained improvement in pruritus (n = 13), reduction in hyperbilirubinemia (n = 10), and improved growth (n = 9). Three patients are on ursodeoxycholic acid and/or rifampicin following biliary diversion for control of pruritus; 11 have required no medications. Eleven of the 15 patients with a good outcome carry at least 1 of the common European mutations, D482G and E297G. Sixteen patients with BSEP (including 2 with failed biliary diversion) have undergone liver transplantation (mean age at liver transplantation was 5.5 years). Fifteen patients had excellent outcomes, including complete relief of jaundice and pruritus. Biliary diversion has been performed in 16 patients with FIC1 (mean age at surgery, 3.1 years); 3 subsequently underwent liver transplantation. In the remainder of patients, outcomes have been variable. Four are doing well, with minimal pruritus, improved growth, and reduced hyperbilirubinemia; 3 have minimal benefit; and in another 3 patients, initial improvement was followed by symptom recurrence. Twenty-two patients with FIC1 have had liver transplantation (at a mean age of 6.9 years); 10 showed signs of cirrhosis at liver transplantation, including 3 patients who previously had biliary diversion.

Biliary diversion can be a useful treatment in some cases of BSEP and FIC1 disease. These data indicate that carrying at least 1 copy of the common D482G BSEP mutation is predictive of a positive outcome with biliary diversion. Studies to determine whether biliary diversion may be more reliably successful in patients with BSEP than in those with FIC1 are under way.

Concluding Remarks

Studies presented during this year's AASLD meeting provide a great stimulus to the further study of genetic liver disease. These studies offer new diagnostic and management strategies for liver diseases that affect diverse patient populations. The era of definitive therapy for these disorders is near.


  1. Ferenci P, Schafer M, Szalay F, et al. Phenotype-genotype correlations in patients with Wilson Disease (WD). Hepatology. 2003;38:665A. [Abstract #1058]

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  2. Seela S, Swamy HS, Mistry PK. Clinical and genetic studies of the Bangalore Wilson's Disease phenotype: rapid progression to neurological disease and response to low-dose d-penicillamine/zinc sulphate (dp/zn) combination therapy in 220 patients. Hepatology. 2003;38:660A. [Abstract #1048]

  3. Wang T, Weinman SA. The CLC-4 chloride channel promotes copper incorporation into ceruloplasmin. Hepatology. 2003;38:261A. [Abstract #218]

  4. Roelofsen H, Balgobind R, Vonk RJ. Effect of copper on protein expression in an in vitro model of Wilson Disease: a proteomics approach. Hepatology. 2003;38:658A. [Abstract #1045]

  5. Roberts EA, Sabean M, Yang S, Robinson BH. Mitochondria in Wilson disease (WD): functional and structural abnormalities in the toxic milk (TX-J) mouse. Hepatology. 2003;38:659A. [Abstract #1046]

  6. Cox DW, Prat LM, Walshe JM, Grey H, Roberts EA. Importance of molecular diagnosis for Wilson disease. Hepatology. 2003;38:230A. [Abstract #154]

  7. Merle U, Encke J, Naldini L, Stremmel W. Gene therapy of Wilson disease with lentiviral vectors in a rat model. Hepatology. 2003;38:657A. [Abstract #1041]

  8. Berg T, Halangk J, Puhl G, et al. Evaluation of alpha-1-antitrypsin allele frequencies as an inherited risk factor for the development of chronic liver disease of different etiologies. Hepatology. 2003;38:662A. [Abstract #1053]

  9. Rudnick D, Teckman J. NSAIDS increase a-1-antitrypsin protein synthesis and increase liver injury in a model of A1AT deficiency. Hepatology. 2003;38:231A. [Abstract #156]

  10. Duan Y, Wu J, Strayer DS, Zern MA. Sv40-derived ribozyme construct mediates effective destruction of human α1-antitrypsin transcripts in a transgenic mouse model. Hepatology. 2003;38:229A. [Abstract #152]

  11. Antoniou A, Strautnieks S, Bull L, et al. Familial intrahepatic cholestasis: mutation detection in the Saudi Arabian and Israeli populations. Hepatology. 2003;38:584A. [Abstract #882]

  12. Pauli-Magnus C, Meier Y, Kerb R, et al. Sequence analysis of BSEP and MDR3 in patients with intrahepatic cholestasis of pregnancy. Hepatology. 2003;38:522A. [Abstract #753]

  13. Pauli-Magnus C, Fattinger KE, Meier PJ, Kullak-Ublick GA, Kerb R, Lang T, Beuers U. BSEP and MDR3 sequence diversity and haplotype structure in primary sclerosing cholangitis and primary biliary cirrhosis. Hepatology. 2003;38:518A. [Abstract #743]

  14. Knisely AS, Meier Y, Stieger B, et al. Immunohistochemically recognised bile salt export protein is unremarkably expressed at the canaliculus in persons with ATP8B1 disease. Hepatology. 2003;38:390A. [Abstract #477]

  15. Rosmorduc O, Hermelin B, Boelle PY, et al. ABCB4 Gene mutation-associated cholelithiasis in adults. Gastroenterology. 2003;125:452-459.

  16. Lucena JF, Herrero JI, Quiroga J, Sangro B, et al. A multidrug resistance 3 gene mutation causing cholelithiasis, cholestasis of pregnancy, and adulthood biliary cirrhosis. Gastroenterology. 2003;124:1037-1042.

  17. Ng VL, Ryckman FC, Porta G, Bezerra JA, Balistreri WF, et al. Long-term outcome after partial external biliary diversion for intractable prurius in patients with intrahepatic cholestasis. J Pediatr Gastroenterol Nutr. 2000;30:152-156.

  18. Kurbegov AC, Setchell KD, Haas JE, Sokol RJ, et al. Biliary diversion for progressive familial intrahepatic cholestasis: Improved liver morphology and bile acid profile. Gastroenterology. 2003;125:1227-1234.

  19. Pawlikowska L, Thompson RJ. Surgical intervention outcomes in FIC1 (ATP8B1) and BSEP (ABCB11) disease. Hepatology. 2003;38:483A. [Abstract #669]


What is the most common genetic liver disease? ›

The two most common genetic liver diseases are Hemochromatosis and Alpha 1 Antitrypsin Deficiency, although there are many rare liver conditions that are known to be inherited.

Is liver disease a genetic disease? ›

Hereditary hemochromatosis is a genetic disorder that can cause severe liver disease and other health problems. Early diagnosis and treatment is critical to prevent complications from the disorder. If you have a family health history of hemochromatosis, talk to your doctor about testing for hereditary hemochromatosis.

Can you have liver disease for years and not know it? ›

Common liver diseases, such as viral hepatitis and NAFLD, can remain silent for decades. These known liver diseases often evade routine detection and their diagnosis depends on improved screening and awareness.

Is genetic liver disease fatal? ›

With proper treatment, hemochromatosis and alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency disease are usually not fatal. However, complications associated with the diseases can be. It is very important that people with inherited liver diseases do all they can to stay healthy.

What causes genetic liver disease? ›

Alpha-1 antitrypsin (AAT) deficiency is a genetic disorder affecting the lungs, liver and rarely, skin. In the lungs, AAT deficiency causes early onset emphysema. The liver disease due to AAT deficiency is caused by an accumulation of abnormal AAT protein, which leads to progressive liver injury.

What is the number one symptom of liver disease? ›

Some types of liver disease (including non-alcohol fatty liver disease) rarely cause symptoms. For other conditions, the most common symptom is jaundice — a yellowing of your skin and the whites of your eyes. Jaundice develops when your liver can't clear a substance called bilirubin.

Can liver disease run in the family? ›

About Genetic Liver Diseases

Unlike a liver condition such as NASH that's typically caused by environmental and lifestyle factors, genetic liver conditions are hereditary and are likely to be found in close relatives or family members.

Does liver failure run in families? ›

Important inherited disorders causing acute and chronic liver disease include hemochromatosis, Wilson's disease, alpha 1-antiprotease (antitrypsin) deficiency, and cystic fibrosis. The detection of an index case has implications for screening family members.

How do I make my liver healthy again? ›

Here are 13 tried and true ways to achieve liver wellness!
  1. Maintain a healthy weight. ...
  2. Eat a balanced diet. ...
  3. Exercise regularly. ...
  4. Avoid toxins. ...
  5. Use alcohol responsibly. ...
  6. Avoid the use of illicit drugs. ...
  7. Avoid contaminated needles. ...
  8. Get medical care if you're exposed to blood.
24 Jun 2021

Can you feel fine with liver disease? ›

Liver disease symptoms

You may feel fine, but the liver is quiet. “Despite the complexity of the liver, its vocabulary to communicate its distress is very limited,” Tapper says.

How quickly does liver disease progress? ›

Acute liver failure is loss of liver function that occurs quickly — in days or weeks — usually in a person who has no preexisting liver disease. It's most commonly caused by a hepatitis virus or drugs, such as acetaminophen. Acute liver failure is less common than chronic liver failure, which develops more slowly.

How do I know my liver is OK? ›

A liver blood test measures the levels of various things in your blood, like proteins, liver enzymes, and bilirubin. This can help check the health of your liver and for signs of inflammation or damage. Your liver can be affected by: liver infections — like hepatitis B and hepatitis C.

Can genetic fatty liver be cured? ›

The good news is that fatty liver disease can be reversed—and even cured—if patients take action, including a 10% sustained loss in body weight.

Which liver disease is not curable? ›

Hepatitis B.

It's spread through bodily fluids, such as blood and semen. While hepatitis B is treatable, there's no cure for it.

Can you live a normal life with liver disease? ›

Although scarring from liver disease causes permanent damage, it's still possible to live a long life. Depending on the underlying cause, it's possible to slow or stop cirrhosis from worsening. Many of the causes and complications that lead to cirrhosis are treatable or manageable. If you drink alcohol, stop.

What are the 4 warning signs of a damaged liver? ›

Any of the following symptoms necessitate immediate medical attention.
  • Jaundice or yellowing of the eyes or skin.
  • Pain and distention of the abdomen due to the release of fluid from the liver.
  • Swelling of the lower legs due to fluid retention.
  • Confusion or forgetfulness. ...
  • Dark-colored urine.
  • Pale-colored stool.
9 Nov 2021

Can you prevent liver disease? ›

Living a healthy lifestyle helps your liver work as efficiently as possible and lowers your risk for liver disease. Recommendations for a healthy lifestyle may include: Maintaining a healthy weight. Eating a healthy diet.

What are warning signs of hemochromatosis? ›

Initial symptoms of haemochromatosis can include:
  • feeling very tired all the time (fatigue)
  • weight loss.
  • weakness.
  • joint pain.
  • an inability to get or maintain an erection (erectile dysfunction)
  • irregular periods or absent periods.

What are 3 diseases that affect the liver? ›

There are many kinds of liver diseases:
  • Diseases caused by viruses, such as hepatitis A, hepatitis B, and hepatitis C.
  • Diseases caused by drugs, poisons, or too much alcohol. Examples include fatty liver disease and cirrhosis.
  • Liver cancer.
  • Inherited diseases, such as hemochromatosis and Wilson disease.
5 May 2016

Can you reverse liver damage? ›

If you have fatty liver disease, the damage may be reversed if you abstain from alcohol for a period of time (this could be months or years). After this point, it's usually safe to start drinking again if you stick to the NHS guidelines on alcohol units. However, it's important to check with your doctor first.

What percentage of people have liver disease? ›

More than 100 million people in the U.S. have some form of liver disease. 4.5 million U.S. adults (1.8%) have been diagnosed with liver disease.

Is liver disease progressive? ›

Cirrhosis is a progressive liver disease that happens over time. The damage to your liver can sometimes reverse or improve if the trigger is gone, such as stop drinking alcohol or if the virus is treated. The goal of treatment is to slow down the buildup of scar tissue and prevent or treat other health problems.

Is cirrhosis caused by genetics? ›

Inheritance. Most cases of cryptogenic cirrhosis are not inherited. However, people with a family history of liver disease or autoimmune disease are at an increased risk of developing these diseases themselves, and possibly cirrhosis.

What is the only option for a person with liver failure? ›

Liver transplant surgery

In advanced cases of cirrhosis, when the liver ceases to function, a liver transplant may be the only treatment option. A liver transplant is a procedure to replace your liver with a healthy liver from a deceased donor or with part of a liver from a living donor.

How long does hemochromatosis take to damage? ›

Iron accumulation in classic hereditary hemochromatosis occurs slowly over many years. Eventually, iron accumulation causes tissue damage and impaired functioning of affected organs. In many affected individuals, symptoms may not become apparent until some point between 40-60 years of age.

What causes fatty liver besides alcohol? ›

Overweight or obesity. Insulin resistance, in which your cells don't take up sugar in response to the hormone insulin. High blood sugar (hyperglycemia), indicating prediabetes or type 2 diabetes. High levels of fats, particularly triglycerides, in the blood.

What can I drink to flush my liver? ›

Here is a list of drinks that help in natural cleansing and detoxification of the liver according to Medical News.
  1. Coffee. Coffee is good for the liver, especially because it protects against issues such as fatty liver disease. ...
  2. Ginger and lemon drink. ...
  3. Oatmeal drink. ...
  4. Tumeric drink. ...
  5. Green tea. ...
  6. Grapefruit drink.
20 May 2020

Which fruit is best for liver? ›

Fill your fruit basket with apples, grapes and citrus fruits like oranges and lemons, which are proven to be liver-friendly fruits. Consume grapes as it is, in the form of a grape juice or supplement your diet with grape seed extracts to increase antioxidant levels in your body and protect your liver from toxins.

What foods help liver repair? ›

11 Foods That Are Good for Your Liver
  • Coffee. Coffee is one of the best beverages you can drink to promote liver health. ...
  • Tea. ...
  • Grapefruit. ...
  • Blueberries and cranberries. ...
  • Grapes. ...
  • Prickly pear. ...
  • Beetroot juice. ...
  • Cruciferous vegetables.

Can a blood test tell if you have liver problems? ›

Blood tests

A low level of serum albumin suggests your liver is not functioning properly. A blood test may also look for signs of abnormal blood clotting, which can indicate significant liver damage.

Do symptoms of liver disease come and go? ›

When cirrhosis begins to cause pain, it typically appears in the upper right abdomen, or just under the lower right ribs. The pain can be throbbing or stabbing, and it may come and go.

Is liver disease hard to diagnose? ›

There are multiple causes of liver disease. While some are infective, some are genetic or autoimmune and some metabolic. This makes diagnosis difficult and often there are a battery of tests that need to be performed in order to correctly diagnose the underlying cause for the disease.

What stage of liver disease is reversible? ›

If you're in the early stages of liver damage or disease, you can often heal over time with proper treatment and lifestyle changes. However, the later stages aren't reversible and sometimes require a liver transplant.

How long can liver disease go undiagnosed? ›

Because of the disease's stealthiness, it often can go undetected for years. Though it occurs in every age group, fatty liver typically shows up in people in their 40s and 50s, and researchers are beginning to document its prevalence among certain ethnic groups.

Is early stage liver disease curable? ›

Cirrhosis cannot usually be cured, but there are ways to manage the symptoms and any complications, and stop the condition getting worse.

Can I check my liver function myself? ›

An at-home liver test can check for liver disease or help monitor an ongoing condition by measuring certain proteins, enzymes, and bilirubin in your blood. Taking this test can help shed light on the health of your liver, since up to 50 percent of people who have acute liver disease don't experience any symptoms.

How do you know if your liver is unhappy? ›

Some signs your liver may be struggling are:
  1. Fatigue and tiredness. ...
  2. Nausea (feeling sick). ...
  3. Pale stools. ...
  4. Yellow skin or eyes (jaundice). ...
  5. Spider naevi (small spider-shaped arteries that appear in clusters on the skin). ...
  6. Bruising easily. ...
  7. Reddened palms (palmar erythema). ...
  8. Dark urine.
12 Jan 2020

Is coffee good for your liver? ›

And studies show coffee may protect against liver disease. Most of the benefits are thanks to antioxidants. A large 2021 study found that drinking coffee was associated with a lower risk of liver disease. Effects were similar for both regular and decaf coffee.

How long does it take for fatty liver to turn to cirrhosis? ›

It takes upwards of ten years for alcohol-related liver disease to progress from fatty liver through fibrosis to cirrhosis to acute on chronic liver failure. This process is silent and symptom free and can easily be missed in primary care, usually presenting with advanced cirrhosis.

Can you drink moderately with fatty liver? ›

Avoiding Alcohol

Moderate or heavy alcohol use can cause additional damage and fat accumulation in the liver in people with NAFLD. Therefore, patients with NAFLD should avoid alcohol entirely if possible.

What causes fatty liver genetic? ›

Studies have identified many genetic changes that may be associated with the development of NAFLD and NASH. Among these is a particular variation in the PNPLA3 gene. This gene provides instructions for making a protein called adiponutrin, which is found in fat cells (adipocytes) and liver cells (hepatocytes).

What liver disease is fatal? ›

About cirrhosis

This is called liver failure. Cirrhosis can be fatal if the liver fails. However, it usually takes years for the condition to reach this stage and treatment can help slow its progression.

Can liver disease cure without medicine? ›

Some liver problems can be treated with lifestyle modifications, such as stopping alcohol use or losing weight, typically as part of a medical program that includes careful monitoring of liver function. Other liver problems may be treated with medications or may require surgery.

What liver problems can you be born with? ›

Congenital liver defects are liver disorders that are present at birth. They are rare. These liver disorders usually block the bile ducts. This affects the flow of bile.
Some congenital liver defects include:
  • Biliary atresia. ...
  • Biliary (choledochal) cyst. ...
  • Alagille syndrome.

What is a1 antitrypsin deficiency? ›

Alpha-1 antitrypsin (AAT) deficiency is a condition that raises your risk for lung and other diseases. AAT is a protein made in your liver to help protect the lungs. If your body does not make enough AAT, your lungs are more easily damaged from smoking, pollution, or dust from the environment. This can lead to COPD.

What causes the most damage to the liver? ›

Alcohol: Excessive consumption of alcohol is the commonest cause of liver damage. The liver diverts its attention from its other functions to convert the alcohol into a less toxic form. When the liver absorbs the alcohol, it causes fatty liver disease, cirrhosis of the liver and inflammation.

Can a healthy person have liver disease? ›

Acute liver failure can develop quickly in an otherwise healthy person, and it is life-threatening. If you or someone you know suddenly develops a yellowing of the eyes or skin; tenderness in the upper abdomen; or any unusual changes in mental state, personality or behavior, seek medical attention right away.

How is liver disease Confirmed? ›

A group of blood tests called liver function tests can be used to diagnose liver disease. Other blood tests can be done to look for specific liver problems or genetic conditions. Imaging tests. An ultrasound, CT scan and MRI can show liver damage.

Can you live without a liver? ›

You can't live without a working liver. If your liver stops working properly, you may need a transplant. A liver transplant may be recommended if you have end-stage liver disease (chronic liver failure). This is a serious, life-threatening liver disease.

Can blood test detect liver problems? ›

Blood tests used to assess the liver are known as liver function tests. But liver function tests can be normal at many stages of liver disease. Blood tests can also detect if you have low levels of certain substances, such as a protein called serum albumin, which is made by the liver.

At what age is the liver fully developed? ›

Excerpt. The liver is the largest organ in the human body. During development, liver size increases with increasing age, averaging 5 cm span at 5 years and attaining adult size by age 15.

Is alpha-1 a terminal illness? ›

Alpha-1 isn't necessarily a terminal illness. Many people with Alpha-1, especially if they don't smoke, can live a normal life span.

Can you live a long life with alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency? ›

No difference in life expectancy in alpha 1-antitrypsin deficiency without chronic liver disease was found in comparison with that of the normal population.

What are the signs of alpha-1? ›

People with alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency usually develop the first signs and symptoms of lung disease between ages 25 and 50. The earliest symptoms are shortness of breath following mild activity, reduced ability to exercise, and wheezing.


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