Antithrombin (AT) is a heparin cofactor and a member of the serine protease inhibitor family (serpin). The mature AT molecule is composed of 432 amino acids and it is produced mainly in the liver. Initially, several different AT activities in plasma were reported, leading to the classification of antithrombin in a range from I to IV. It was subsequently shown that these various antithrombin activities were the function of one molecule, antithrombin III, whose name was reduced to antithrombin at the meeting of the International Society in Thrombosis and Haemostasis in 1993. AT is an important protease inhibitor of thrombin and factor Xa. However, AT is also able to inhibit factors IXa, XIa, XIIab, kallikrein, and plasmin.
Given that AT is one of the major naturally occurring inhibitors of coagulation, acquired or hereditary deficiencies of this protein result in excessive thrombin generation. As a vast array of mutations are responsible for hereditary AT deficiencies, screening for their presence by DNA testing would require sequencing each entire gene involving numerous exons. Moreover, the knowledge of the gene mutation does not offer any benefit in the treatment of affected families, so the routine molecular characterization is not indicative. These defects are detected by functional or immunological assays. AT amidolytic assays are recommended for initial testing for AT deficiency. There is no need to routinely perform AT immunological assays. However, they are useful in order to distinguish type I from type II hereditary AT deficiency.
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