Wilson disease: At the crossroads between genetics and epigenetics—A review of the evidence

Dorothy A. Kieffer, Valentina Medici

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

13 Scopus citations


Environmental factors, including diet, exercise, stress, and toxins, profoundly impact disease phenotypes. This review examines how Wilson disease (WD), an autosomal recessive genetic disorder, is influenced by genetic and environmental inputs. WD is caused by mutations in the copper-transporter gene ATP7B, leading to the accumulation of copper in the liver and brain, resulting in hepatic, neurological, and psychiatric symptoms. These symptoms range in severity and can first appear anytime between early childhood and old age. Over 300 disease-causing mutations in ATP7B have been identified, but attempts to link genotype to the phenotypic presentation have yielded little insight, prompting investigators to identify alternative mechanisms, such as epigenetics, to explain the highly varied clinical presentation. Further, WD is accompanied by structural and functional abnormalities in mitochondria, potentially altering the production of metabolites that are required for epigenetic regulation of gene expression. Notably, environmental exposure affects the regulation of gene expression and mitochondrial function. We present the “multi-hit” hypothesis of WD progression, which posits that the initial hit is an environmental factor that affects fetal gene expression and epigenetic mechanisms and subsequent “hits” are environmental exposures that occur in the offspring after birth. These environmental hits and subsequent changes in epigenetic regulation may impact copper accumulation and ultimately WD phenotype. Lifestyle changes, including diet, increased physical activity, stress reduction, and toxin avoidance, might influence the presentation and course of WD, and therefore may serve as potential adjunctive or replacement therapies.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)121-130
Number of pages10
JournalLiver Research
Issue number2
StatePublished - Sep 2017


  • Epigenetics
  • Mitochondria
  • Modifier gene
  • Wilson disease

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Gastroenterology
  • Hepatology


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