Familial Mediterranean Fever
Familial Mediterranean fever is an inherited disorder
characterized by recurrent fever and inflammation, often involving the abdomen or the
Description of Familial Mediterranean Fever
Estimates of the frequency of Familial Mediterranean Fever within the affected
populations range from 0.02-0.2%.
Episodes of Familial Mediterranean Fever are associated with inflammation of sheets of
tissue covering the organs (serosal membranes) inside the abdominal cavity (peritonitis),
the chest cavity (pericarditis), and the membranes around joints (arthritis). During an
episode, massive numbers of a certain type of white blood cell (neutrophils) move into the
affected area or areas and cause inflammation.
In addition to episodes of painful inflammation, some Familial Mediterranean Fever
sufferers acquire chronic arthritis. Moreover, about 25% of the people afflicted by FMF
develop amyloidosis, a serious condition where proteins called amyloids are mistakenly
synthesized and deposited in organs and tissues in the body. Amyloidosis often leads to
Familial Mediterranean Fever is inherited as a recessive trait. This means the disease
is only active in persons who have two defective copies of a gene, one from each parent.
How the gene involved acts, its relationship with FMF episodes, and its relationship to
amyloidosis and chronic arthritis are all unknown.
However, Familial Mediterranean Fever research is moving fast. In 1997 researchers
cloned and determined the sequence of the gene responsible for FMF, and this breakthrough
should pave the way for progress. Knowledge of the sequence of FMF DNA will allow the
development of a much-needed diagnostic test. Such tests would allow the identification of
prospective parents who each carry one masked copy of the FMF gene that could be passed to
the next generation; and this would facilitate pre-natal genetic counseling. By comparing
DNA sequences from different individuals with FMF, scientists could determine whether
amyloidosis associated with FMF is genetically determined. If it is, a diagnostic test
could be designed to distinguish between individuals who will get amyloidosis and those
who will not, enabling more appropriate choices of drug regimens.
Knowledge of the sequence of Familial Mediterranean Fever DNA has already provided
information about the protein encoded by the FMF gene. The sequence of the protein has
been deduced from the sequence of the DNA, and this protein, called pyrin, bears strong
resemblance to other proteins known to be regulatory proteins. Knowledge to be gained
about the function of this protein in normal cells and the role it plays in FMF episodes
can lead to new drugs that will specifically act to correct the process that malfunctions
during FMF episodes without the side effects and risks of the drugs in current use.
Familial Mediterranean Fever is also known by many other names. They include: recurrent
hereditary polyserositis, benign paroxysmal peritonitis, familial paroxysmal
polyserositis, paroxysmal polyserositis, familial recurrent polyserositis, periodic fever,
periodic amyloid syndrome, periodic peritonitis syndrome, Reimann periodic disease,
Reimann's syndrome, Siegel-Cattan-Mamou syndrome, and Armenian syndrome.
Causes of Familial Mediterranean fever
The underlying cause of the disorder is the defective Familial Mediterranean Fever
gene, but the series of reactions that bring about FMF and the role of the gene in those
reactions are unknown. Furthermore, it is not known what factors trigger the episodes.
Symptoms of Familial Mediterranean fever
The recurrent acute attacks of Familial Mediterranean Fever typically begin in
childhood. The pain, usually in the abdomen, chest, or joints, or less commonly in the
area surrounding the testes, and sometimes in two or more of these areas at the same time,
lasts for 24-72 hours. FMF is often, but not always, accompanied by fever and sometimes
with a rash (in less than 5% of the cases). Between episodes, most victims of FMF are
completely without symptoms.
However, for some people the recurrent joint pain becomes chronic arthritis. Moreover,
about 25% of the people afflicted by Familial Mediterranean Fever develop amyloidosis, a
condition that often leads to kidney failure and is potentially lethal. The percentage of
people with FMF who get amyloidosis varies among the different populations affected by FMF
and ranges between 0-60%. It is not known whether this variation is due to genetic
differences or to external factors like diet.
Diagnosis of Familial Mediterranean fever
As of early 1998, there is no diagnostic test for Familial Mediterranean Fever, so
diagnoses must be based solely on the clinical symptoms. The symptoms of FMF (severe
abdominal pain, for example), are difficult to distinguish from similar symptoms arising
from completely different causes. For example, FMF is easily mistaken for appendicitis. In
fact, according to one estimate, up to two-thirds of FMF sufferers have been subjected to
appendectomies. In addition, FMF sufferers may undergo needless, sometimes repeated,
exploratory surgery as a consequence of inadequate diagnoses. Internists and
rheumatologists are best able to diagnose FMF, but many doctors in the United States are
unfamiliar with this disorder and frequently do not recognize it.
Familial Mediterranean Fever should be suspected for any patient who:
- Has had at least four episodes of abdominal pain or chest pain or both, lasting from
- Is without symptoms between attacks
- Does not have any other condition that would explain the symptoms.
If the drug colchicine, eliminates or decreases the number of attacks, the diagnosis of
FMF is confirmed because colchicine does not help any other ailments with similar
symptoms. If colchicine is not effective, FMF cannot be ruled out. Fortunately, definitive
diagnostic tests are on the horizon.
Treatment of Familial Mediterranean fever
For reasons nobody yet understands, the drug colchicine is effective at preventing or
reducing the number of acute FMF episodes for a large percentage of FMF sufferers.
Colchicine is also an effective treatment for FMF-associated amyloidosis. Some people
think it acts against FMF attacks by inhibiting the movement of neutrophils (a type of
white blood cell) to the areas that would otherwise become inflamed. Colchicine, however,
has unpleasant side effects, including nausea, diarrhea, and stomach cramps. The drug can
also cause chromosomal damage and infertility.
Prognosis of Familial Mediterranean fever
Currently, except for those who get amyloidosis and chronic arthritis, people with FMF
have a good quality of life between episodes and an excellent prognosis. However, people
with repeated episodes of amyloidosis will likely need kidney transplants. In addition,
people who take colchicine to combat FMF risk chromosomal damage and infertility and often
suffer from the drug's side effects, nausea, diarrhea, and stomach cramps.
However, this situation is likely to change soon. Knowledge of the newly-cloned gene
and its gene product holds promise for better lives for FMF victims through a better
understanding of the processes governed by this gene.
Prevention of Familial Mediterranean fever
Since FMF is a genetic disease, it can only be prevented if carriers of the defective
gene can be identified. This is not currently possible, because at the moment there is no
diagnostic test to identify the carriers of the defective gene, except in the cases of
people who have the FMF disorder and, therefore, two copies of the defective FMF gene.
Now that the gene for FMF has been cloned, it may soon be possible to develop tests
that will allow people in high risk groups to find out if they carry the gene. This would
allow couples, where both partners carry the gene, to take measures to ensure their
children will not have FMF.
Some researchers are interested in trying to determine whether there may be some
advantage to carrying the FMF gene. Other defective genes that cause certain diseases have
been found to provide carriers useful protections against specific infectious diseases.
Perhaps FMF provides similar advantages. This gene has been in the human gene pool for
over 2,000 years, and it is present in some populations at a high level, as many as 20% of
the people in some groups may carry the gene. The fact that it has not disappeared
suggests that it provides some evolutionary advantage to people who carry it. Also, after
the pathways of reactions that lead to the various symptoms are understood, treatment may
become simpler and more risk-free.