, Volume 4, Issue 5, pp 347-364
Date: 22 Aug 2012

The Molecular Genetics of Keratin Disorders

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Abstract

Keratins are the type I and II intermediate filament proteins which form a cytoskeletal network within all epithelial cells. They are expressed in pairs in a tissue- and differentiation-specific fashion. Epidermolysis bullosa simplex (EBS) was the first human disorder to be associated with keratin mutations. The abnormal keratin filament aggregates observed in basal cell keratinocytes of some EBS patients are composed of keratins K5 and K14. Dominant mutations in the genes encoding these proteins were shown to disrupt the keratin filament cytoskeleton resulting in cells that are less resilient and blister with mild physical trauma.

Identification of mutations in other keratin genes soon followed with attention focussed on disorders showing abnormal clumping of keratin filaments in specific cells. For example, in bullous congenital ichthyosiform erythroderma, clumping of filaments in the suprabasal cells led to the identification of mutations in the suprabasal keratins, K1 and K10. Mutations have now been identified in 18 keratins, all of which produce a fragile cell phenotype. These include ichthyosis bullosa of Siemens (K2e), epidermolytic palmoplantar keratoderma (K1, K9), pachyonychia congenita (K6a, K6b, K16, K17), white sponge nevus (K4, K13), Meesmann’s corneal dystrophy (K3, K12), cryptogenic cirrhosis (K8, K18) and monilethrix (hHb6, hHb1).

In general, these disorders are inherited as autosomal dominant traits and the mutations act in a dominant-negative manner. Therefore, treatment in the form of gene therapy is difficult, as the mutant gene needs to be inactivated. Ways of achieving this are actively being studied. Reliable mutation detection methods from genomic DNA are now available. This enables rapid screening of patients for keratin mutations. For some of the more severe phenotypes, prenatal diagnosis may be requested and this can now be performed from chorionic villus samples at an early stage of the pregnancy.

This review article describes the discovery of, to date, mutations in 18 keratin genes associated with inherited human diseases.