A Brief History of AKU, the First Genetic Disease Discovered

Last week, we announced that we are creating the first open, global registry for alkaptonuria (AKU), in collaboration with the AKU Society.  You may not have heard of this extremely rare disease – which causes a severe, early-onset form of osteoarthritis – but it plays an important role in the history of genetic diseases.  In fact, AKU, which is estimated to affect 1 in 250,000 to 500,000 people, was the very first genetic disease identified in the scientific record.  Strangely, though, the scientific community failed to recognize this landmark discovery until much later. In 1902, Sir Archibald Garrod, a British physician interested in childhood diseases, published a paper describing the hereditary nature of AKU in The Lancet.  After observing the frequent occurrence of AKU in siblings, Garrod came to believe that the condition was congenital and possibly hereditary.  Using chemical studies, he set out to disprove the existing theory that AKU was infectious – and succeeded. By 1908-1909, he’d expanded his radical notion of lifelong hereditary disease to other rare disorders: albinism, cystinuria and pentosuria.   In lectures and publications at the time, he became the first person to describe a human condition that followed Mendelian inheritance patterns, the first to …

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