Galactosemia: A Rare Metabolic Disorder

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Galactosemia: An Inherited Disorder of Galactose Metabolism

Galactosemia is a rare, inherited metabolic disorder that affects the body’s ability to metabolize galactose, a type of sugar found in milk and dairy products. This inability results in the accumulation of galactose and its toxic metabolite, galactitol, in the body, leading to a range of symptoms and potential complications.

Genetics and Inheritance

Galactosemia is an autosomal recessive disorder, meaning that it is caused by mutations in both copies of a particular gene. The most common form of galactosemia is caused by mutations in the GALT gene, which encodes the enzyme galactose-1-phosphate uridyltransferase (GALT). This enzyme is responsible for converting galactose-1-phosphate into glucose-1-phosphate, a necessary step in the metabolism of galactose. Mutations in the GALT gene lead to a deficiency of this enzyme, resulting in the accumulation of galactose and its metabolites.

Types of Galactosemia

There are three main types of galactosemia, classified based on the severity of the enzyme deficiency:

  • Classic galactosemia: The most severe form, with complete deficiency of GALT enzyme activity.
  • Duarte galactosemia: A milder form, with partial deficiency of GALT enzyme activity.
  • Type III galactosemia (epimerase deficiency): A rare form caused by mutations in the GALE gene, which encodes the enzyme galactose epimerase.

Symptoms and Complications

The symptoms of galactosemia vary depending on the severity of the enzyme deficiency. Classic galactosemia is the most severe form and can manifest within the first few days after birth. Symptoms include:

  • Feeding difficulties and vomiting
  • Jaundice (yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes)
  • Liver damage, including liver failure
  • Enlarged spleen
  • Cataracts (clouding of the eye lens)
  • Developmental delay
  • Cognitive impairment
  • Speech problems
  • Ovarian failure in females

Duarte galactosemia is less severe and may not present with symptoms for several months or years. Symptoms can include:

  • Learning disabilities
  • Speech problems
  • Motor difficulties
  • Mild liver damage

Type III galactosemia is the mildest form and typically does not cause any symptoms.


Galactosemia is typically diagnosed through newborn screening, a series of blood tests performed shortly after birth. If the screening test indicates a possible galactosemia diagnosis, further testing, such as enzyme assays or genetic testing, is necessary for confirmation.


The primary treatment for galactosemia is a lifelong, strict galactose-free diet. This means avoiding all foods and beverages that contain milk, dairy products, or any hidden sources of galactose. A healthcare professional can provide guidance on how to follow a galactose-free diet.

In cases of severe liver damage, liver transplantation may be necessary. Other supportive measures, such as intravenous fluids and electrolyte replacement, may also be required.

Management and Monitoring

Individuals with galactosemia need lifelong medical monitoring and management. Regular blood tests are essential to monitor galactose and galactitol levels and assess liver function. Monitoring for cognitive and developmental progress is also important.

Genetic counseling can help affected individuals and their families understand the disorder and make informed decisions about family planning.


With early diagnosis and strict adherence to a galactose-free diet, the prognosis for galactosemia is generally good. Most individuals with galactosemia can live full and healthy lives. However, potential complications, such as cognitive impairment and liver damage, can occur if the disorder is not managed properly.


Galactosemia cannot be prevented, but early diagnosis and treatment can help prevent or minimize complications. Newborn screening programs have been instrumental in identifying and diagnosing galactosemia in newborns, allowing for prompt dietary intervention and improved outcomes.


Galactosemia is a rare but potentially serious metabolic disorder that affects the body’s ability to metabolize galactose. Early diagnosis through newborn screening and strict adherence to a galactose-free diet are essential for the well-being and long-term health of individuals with galactosemia. With proper management and monitoring, most affected individuals can lead full and productive lives.

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