What Is Krabbe Disease?

Krabbe disease is a rare, inherited metabolic disorder in which harmful amounts of lipids (fatty materials such as oils and waxes) build up in various cells and tissues in the body and destroys brain cells. Krabbe disease, also known as globoid cell leukodystrophy, is characterized by the presence of globoid cells (cells that have more than one nucleus) that break down the nerve’s protective myelin coating.

Krabbe disease is caused by a deficiency of galactocerebrosidase, an essential enzyme for myelin metabolism. The disease most often affects infants, with onset before age 6 months, but can occur in adolescence or adulthood.

Symptoms include severe deterioration of mental and motor skills, muscle weakness, hypertonia (inability of a muscle to stretch), myoclonic seizures (sudden, shock-like contractions of the limbs), and spasticity (involuntary and awkward movement). Other symptoms may include irritability, unexplained fever, blindness, difficulty with swallowing, and deafness.

Krabbe Disease Treatment

There is no cure for the disease. Results of a very small clinical trial of children with infantile Krabbe disease found that children who received umbilical cord blood stem cells from unrelated donors prior to symptom onset developed with little neurological impairment.

Bone marrow transplantation may help some people. Generally, treatment for the disorder is symptomatic and supportive. Physical therapy may help maintain or increase muscle tone and circulation.

Krabbe disease in infants is generally fatal before age 2. Individuals with a later onset form of the disease generally have a milder course of the disease and live significantly longer.

Krabbe disease occurs in about one in 100,000 births. A higher incidence, about six in 1,000, has been reported in certain communities in Israel. Scandinavian countries have comparatively high rates of the disease, reported to be one in 50,000 births.

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