Ultrastructure of skin from Refsum disease with emphasis on epidermal lamellar bodies and stratum corneum barrier lipid organization

Arch Dermatol Res. 2014 Oct;306(8):731-7. doi: 10.1007/s00403-014-1478-2. Epub 2014 Jun 12.


Classic Refsum disease (RD) is a rare, autosomal recessively-inherited disorder of peroxisome metabolism due to a defect in the initial step in the alpha oxidation of phytanic acid (PA), a C16 saturated fatty acid with four methyl side groups, which accumulates in plasma and lipid enriched tissues (please see van den Brink and Wanders, Cell Mol Life Sci 63:1752-1765, 2006). It has been proposed that the disease complex in RD is in part due to the high affinity of phytanic acid for retinoid X receptors and peroxisome proliferator-activated receptors. Structurally, epidermal hyperplasia, increased numbers of cornified cell layers, presence of cells with lipid droplets in stratum basale and reduction of granular layer to a single layer have been reported by Blanchet-Bardon et al. (The ichthyoses, SP Medical & Scientific Books, New York, pp 65-69, 1978). However, lamellar body (LB) density and secretion were reportedly normal. We recently examined biopsies from four unrelated patients, using both OsO4 and RuO4 post-fixation to evaluate the barrier lipid structural organization. Although lamellar body density appeared normal, individual organelles often had distorted shape, or had non-lamellar domains interspersed with lamellar structures. Some of the organelles seemed to lack lamellar contents altogether, showing instead uniformly electron-dense contents. In addition, we also observed mitochondrial abnormalities in the nucleated epidermis. Stratum granulosum-stratum corneum junctions also showed co-existence of non-lamellar and lamellar domains, indicative of lipid phase separation. Also, partial detachment or complete absence of corneocyte lipid envelopes (CLE) was seen in the stratum corneum of all RD patients. In conclusion, abnormal LB contents, resulting in defective lamellar bilayers, as well as reduced CLEs, likely lead to impaired barrier function in RD.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Biopsy
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Lipid Droplets / ultrastructure*
  • Lipid Metabolism / genetics
  • Microscopy, Electron
  • Middle Aged
  • Mixed Function Oxygenases / genetics
  • Mutation / genetics
  • Peroxisomal Targeting Signal 2 Receptor
  • Peroxisome Proliferator-Activated Receptors / metabolism
  • Receptors, Cytoplasmic and Nuclear / genetics
  • Refsum Disease / diagnosis
  • Refsum Disease / genetics
  • Refsum Disease / pathology*
  • Skin / metabolism
  • Skin / ultrastructure*


  • Peroxisomal Targeting Signal 2 Receptor
  • Peroxisome Proliferator-Activated Receptors
  • Receptors, Cytoplasmic and Nuclear
  • Mixed Function Oxygenases
  • PHYH protein, human