, Volume 185, Issue 4, pp 191-201

Alpha-1-Antitrypsin Deficiency: Current Concepts

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Since the condition was first described four decades ago, alpha-1-antitrypsin (A1AT) deficiency has served as a model for other disease processes. A1AT is the archetypal serpin designed to ensnare proteases, a process that involves significant conformational change within the molecule. Mutations in the A1AT gene lead to misfolding of the protein and accumulation within the endoplasmic reticulum of hepatocytes resulting in two different pathologic processes. First, the accumulation of mutant A1AT protein has a directly toxic effect on the liver, resulting in hepatitis and cirrhosis. Second, the resultant decrease in circulating A1AT results in protease-antiprotease imbalance at the lung surface and emphysema ensues. A1AT deficiency therefore can be seen as two distinct disease processes: a conformational disease of the liver and a protease-antiprotease imbalance of the lung. This two-stage model of disease in A1AT deficiency is elegant in its simplicity and goes a long way to explaining the clinical manifestations that occur in patients with the condition. However, some aspects of the disease are not readily explained. Recent findings suggest that there is more to the lung damage in A1AT deficiency than simple proteolytic insult and that the presence of the mutant protein itself is proinflammatory and may indeed cause chronic injury to the cells that produce it. This review discusses some of the emerging concepts in alpha-1-antitrypsin research and outlines the implications these new ideas may have for treatment of this condition.