Press releases

Discovery of a first genetic cause of Whipple’s disease

02 May 2018 | By Inserm (Newsroom) | Genetics, genomics and bioinformatics

A Franco-American team involving researchers from Inserm, Université Paris-Descartes and doctors grouped in the Institute Imagine the hospital Necker-Enfants Malades AP-HP and Rockefeller University New York discovered a genetic cause of Whipple’s disease, chronic intestinal pathology. By studying families with 4 members developed symptoms, the team found that the mutation of the gene causes IRF4 an impaired immune response to the bacteriaTropheryma whippleiAt the origin of the disease.This bacterium, common and experienced by many individuals, then causes in carriers of the mutation potentially fatal chronic infection without treatment. With this discovery, the first step towards a genetic explanation of the disease was done.

Chronic bacterial infection, Whipple’s disease occurs around the age of 50 and may result in clinical signs such as diarrhea, malabsorption, fever, weight loss, joint diseases, cardiovascular or central nervous system. In the absence or failure of antibiotic treatment, it can progress to death.

The disease is caused by Tropheryma whipplei , a bacterium that many of us encounter in our life (up to 50% of the members of some populations are carriers), but which affects a very small portion of individuals: only a subject on a million developing the symptoms of the disease.

The team led by Professor Jean-Laurent Casanova, laboratory director of Human Genetics of Infectious Diseases at the Institute. Imagine – Inserm, Paris Descartes University, AP-HP-member of Immunology, Hematology and Pediatric Rheumatology Hospital Necker Children AP-HP, Dr. Jacinta Bustamante, a research professor in the same laboratory and within the diagnostic center immune deficiencies at the Hospital Necker Children AP-HP, and Dr. Laurent Abel, co-director of the laboratory of human genetics of infectious diseases at Imagine , found that many families have multiple members affected by the disease, suggesting a genetic origin.

The researcher Antoine Guerin, first author of the scientific paper on this discovery, studied a French family with 5 healthy carriers and 4 members affected by the disease. These four patients are carriers of a mutation of the IRF4 gene, which codes for the production of a protein having a key role in immunity, and rendered non-functional by mutation. Dysfunction of this gene makes these patients vulnerable to infection with T. whipplei . The study also highlights the mode of transmission of the disease, hereditary, autosomal dominant: inherit a single mutated allele is enough to be reached.

With this study and the discovery of this mutation, the research team laid the foundation stone for a genetic understanding of the disease. Sequencing of a cohort of patients has not found other mutations in the same gene showing genetic heterogeneity of the disease. It remains to find and understand the mechanism immune deficiency caused by the mutation of the gene and to find other genetic mutations that may explain the vulnerability to disease.

This breakthrough helps explain why some patients exposed to the bacteria are sick or not, improve diagnosis, genetic counseling to families and the care of patients with the signs of the disease.

These works are the subject of a publication on ”  IRF4 haploinsufficiency in a family with Whipple’s disease “, published March 14, 2018.
Researcher Contact
Antoine GUERIN Unité Inserm 1163 IHU Imagine Laboratoire de génétique humaine des maladies infectieuses Equipe "Génétique immunologique" +33 (0)1 42 75 43 97 rf.mresni@nireug.eniotna
Press Contact
  1. Antoine Guérin 
  2. Gaspard Kerner 
  3. Nico Marr 
  4. Janet G Markle 
  5. Florence Fenollar 
  6. Natalie Wong
  7. Sabri Boughorbel 
  8. Danielle T Avery 
  9. Cindy S Ma 
  10. Salim Bougarn 
  11. Matthieu Bouaziz 
  12. Vivien Béziat
  13. Erika Della Mina 
  14. Carmen Oleaga-Quintas 
  15. Tomi Lazarov 
  16. Lisa Worley 
  17. Tina Nguyen 
  18. Etienne Patin 
  19. Caroline Deswarte 
  20. Rubén Martinez-Barricarte 
  21. Soraya Boucherit 
  22. Xavier Ayral 
  23. Sophie Edouard 
  24. Stéphanie Boisson-Dupuis 
  25. Vimel Rattina 
  26. Benedetta Bigio 
  27. Guillaume Vogt 
  28. Frédéric Geissmann 
  29. Lluis Quintana-Murci 
  30. Damien Chaussabel 
  31. Stuart G Tangye 
  32. Didier Raoult 
  33. Laurent Abel 
  34. Jacinta Bustamante 
  35. Jean-Laurent Casanova 
  1. INSERM U1163, France 
  2. Paris Descartes University, France 
  3. Sidra Medicine, Qatar 
  4. The Rockefeller University, United States 
  5. University Aix-Marseille, URMITE, UM63, CNRS 7278, IRD 198, France 
  6. Garvan Institute of Medical Research, Australia 
  7. University of New South Wales, Australia 
  8. Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, United States 
  9. Institut Pasteur, France 
  10. CNRS UMR2000, France 
  11. Cochin Hospital, France 
  12. Weill Cornell Graduate School of Medical Sciences, United States 
  13. Assistance Publique-Hôpitaux de Paris, Necker Hospital for Sick Children, France 
  14. Howard Hughes Medical Institute, United States