Headlines often trumpet the latest in gene editing, RNA drugs, or gene therapy. The less buzzy, but more classic strategy of providing a nutrient that a genetic glitch blocks, has been quietly making strides against Menkes disease, which impairs copper absorption. November is Menkes disease awareness month.
Menkes disease results from a mutation in a gene (ATP7A) on the X chromosome, so its affects boys. About 70% inherit the mutation from their mothers, who are carriers. The rest have a new mutation that arises in egg or sperm.
The healthy version of the gene encodes a protein that controls enzymes that shuttle copper from food through the lining of the small intestine into the bloodstream, and into the brain, where copper is vital for neural connectivity. The mineral is also essential for hair growth and pigmentation, which is why Menkes is also called kinky hair disease. Boys have sparse, pale, and twisty hairs.
Aside from the unusual hair, the child seems healthy until about 3 months. Then symptoms become increasingly noticeable: poor growth, developmental delay, seizures, weak muscles, and low body temperature. Many boys die before their third birthdays.
To continue reading, please go to my DNA Science blog at Public Library of Science, where this post first appeared.