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Retinal dystrophies: A look beyond the eyes.



To illustrate the importance of systemic evaluation in retinal dystrophies through examples of Alstrom syndrome, Bardet Biedl syndrome, and Refsum disease.


Detailed eye evaluations, including visual acuity, visual field, slit lamp examination, and indirect ophthalmoscopy were performed. Retinal imaging included fundus photography and spectral domain optical coherence tomography (SD-OCT). Functional testing of the retina was done using full field electroretinography (ffERG). In addition, molecular genetic testing was performed using a ciliopathy panel, a retinal dystrophy panel, and whole genome sequencing (WGS).We report three individuals who presented with vision concerns first to ophthalmology, noted to have retinal dystrophy, and then referred to genomic medicine for genetic testing. Additional evaluation led to suspicion of specific groups of systemic disorders and guided appropriate genetic testing. The first individual presented with retinal dystrophy, obesity, and short stature with no reported neurocognitive deficits. Genetic testing included a ciliopathy panel that was negative followed by WGS that identified biallelic variants in ALMS: a novel frame-shift pathogenic variant c.6525dupT (p.Gln2176Serfs*17) and a rare nonsense pathogenic variant c.2035C > T (p.Arg679Ter) consistent with Alstrom syndrome. The second individual presented with retinal dystrophy, central obesity, and mild neurocognitive deficits. A ciliopathy genetic testing panel identified a homozygous pathogenic variant in BBS7: c.389_390del (p.Asn130Thrfs*4), confirming the diagnosis of Bardet Biedl syndrome. The third individual presented with progressive vision loss due to retinitis pigmentosa, anosmia, hearing loss, and shortened metatarsals and digits. Genetic testing identified two variants in PHYH: c.375_375del (p.Glu126Argfs*2) a pathogenic variant and c.536A > G (p.His179Arg), a variant of uncertain significance (VUS), suggestive of Refsum disease. Additional biochemical testing revealed markedly elevated phytanic acid with a low concentration of pristanic acid and normal concentrations of very long-chain fatty acids (C22:0, C24:0, C26:0), a pattern consistent with a diagnosis of Refsum disease.

Conclusions and importance

In individuals who present with retinal dystrophy to ophthalmologists, additional systemic manifestations such as sensorineural hearing loss, anosmia, or polydactyly, should be sought and a positive history or examination finding should prompt an immediate referral to a clinical geneticist for additional evaluation and appropriate genetic testing. This facilitates pre-test genetic counseling and allows for more accurate diagnosis, prognosis, and management of affected individuals along with better recurrence risk estimates for family members. Identification of an underlying etiology also enhances the understanding of the pathophysiology of disease and expands the genotypic and phenotypic spectrum. Ultimately, successful recognition of these diseases facilitates development of targeted therapies and surveillance of affected individuals.

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