An assessment of screening strategies for fragile X syndrome in the UK

M E Pembrey, A J Barnicoat, B Carmichael, M Bobrow, G Turner
Health Technology Assessment: HTA 2001, 5 (7): 1-95

BACKGROUND: Fragile X syndrome is an inherited form of learning disability that was defined in the late 1970s by cytogenetic detection of an associated fragile site on the X chromosome (Xq27.3). Cytogenetic estimates of the prevalence of fragile X syndrome were as high as 1 in 1039 males but have since been revised downwards. Fragile X syndrome is associated with few medical problems and the subtle physical features make clinical diagnosis difficult. The unusual pattern of inheritance, delineated in the 1980s, was explained once the fragile X syndrome gene (FMR1) had been identified in 1991. This gene contains a highly variable repeat of the nucleotide triplet, cytosine-guanine-guanine (CGG). Fragile X syndrome is caused by a large expansion of this CGG repeat (full mutation) that leads to silencing of the FMR1 gene so no gene product (FMRP) is made. This is the ultimate cause of the learning disability that, in males, is sufficient to preclude independent living. Family studies show that all individuals with a full mutation inherit it from a female (usually unaffected) who carries either a full mutation or a premutation, a smaller repeat expansion (approximately 55-200 repeats) that is unstable on female transmission. The chance of a premutation expanding to a full mutation is positively associated with the size of the repeat (approximately 95% by 90 repeats) but only for female transmissions. When a man transmits a premutation, it remains a premutation; his children are, therefore, unaffected by overt learning difficulties. The potential for population screening or systematic case-finding and extended family testing exists because every unaffected mother of an affected child has a detectable CGG repeat expansion. Reliable prenatal diagnosis is possible in males.

OBJECTIVES: To assess the feasibility and acceptability of population screening by addressing the following questions in the context of existing services for families with fragile X syndrome. (1) Is there a suitable test for all fragile X genotypes? (2) What are the UK population distribution of FMR1 repeat sizes, and the prevalence of full and premutations in both sexes? (3) What reliable information, in terms of the chance of an affected child, is available to women with premutations between 55 and 200 repeats? (4) What is the effect of a premutation on the person who carries it? (5) What information is available to women with intermediate alleles of 41 to 54-60 repeats? (6) How many affected people are diagnosed? (7) Given the practice of offering extended family testing (cascade testing), what is the population prevalence of 'as-yet-undiagnosed' female carriers of a full or premutation? What proportion of women at risk can be reached by cascade testing? (8) What are the costs of fragile X syndrome to an affected person and their family and to the NHS and society? (9) What is the attitude of families to the benefits and costs of a diagnosis of fragile X syndrome, and to the prospect of population screening? (10) What data are available from existing population screening programmes? (11) What alternatives to population screening exist and are these feasible?

METHODS: A key aspect of the review process was to assemble a team with extensive first-hand experience of all aspects of fragile X syndrome, including affected families and the services they use, and a wide knowledge of the relevant literature. They had followed the critical discussions at all the biennial international workshops on fragile X syndrome, including a special session at the 7th International Workshop in 1995 at which an earlier (and substantially different) draft of this report was discussed. The biomedical literature review of 2429 papers was based on MEDLINE searches, extending to PsycINFO and BIDS for the psychological aspects of [fragile X syndrome] screening. Questionnaire-based information was obtained from the UK Fragile X Society and data were collected directly from all the regional clinical genetics centres in 1995 and 1998.

RESULTS: Unlike cytogenetic approaches, DNA analysis can reliably determine the FMR1 CGG repeat number and detect full mutations; however, a combination of polymerase chain reaction and Southern blotting tests is required, which limits high throughput. There are UK population-based data on FMR1 repeat sizes of up to 60 repeats but insufficient to provide a reliable estimate of the prevalence of premutations (approximately 60-200 repeats). The few data and estimates in the literature of women carriers of the premutation range from 1 in 246 to 1 in 550. Two UK DNA-based estimates of the prevalence of males with the full mutation are 1 in 4090 (Coventry) and 1 in 5530 (Wessex). There are reasonable family-based data for the risk of expansion to a full mutation for the larger premutations but in the 50-69 repeat range the estimates are less secure. (ABSTRACT TRUNCATED)

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