Wilson's disease: A 2017 update

Clin Res Hepatol Gastroenterol. 2018 Dec;42(6):512-520. doi: 10.1016/j.clinre.2018.03.007. Epub 2018 Apr 4.


Wilson's disease (WD) is characterised by a deleterious accumulation of copper in the liver and brain. It is one of those rare genetic disorders that benefits from effective and lifelong treatments that have dramatically transformed the prognosis of the disease. In Europe, its clinical prevalence is estimated at between 1.2 and 2/100,000 but the genetic prevalence is higher, at around 1/7000. Incomplete penetrance of the gene or the presence of modifier genes may account for the difference between the calculated genetic prevalence and the number of patients diagnosed with WD. The clinical spectrum of WD is broader as expected with mild clinical presentations and late onset of the disease after the age of 40 in 6% of patients. WD is usually suspected when ceruloplasmin and serum copper levels are low and 24h urinary copper excretion is elevated. Recently, a major diagnostic advance was achieved with implementation of the direct assay of "free copper", or exchangeable copper (CuEXC). The relative exchangeable copper (REC) that corresponds to the ratio between CuEXC and total serum copper enables a diagnosis of WD with high sensitivity and specificity when REC>18.5%. Moreover, CuEXC values at diagnosis are a marker of extrahepatic involvement and its severity. A value of >2.08μmol/L is suggestive of corneal and brain involvement (Se=86%, Sp=94%), and the disease will be more clinically and radiologically severe as values rise. The use of FibroScan® is becoming more widespread to assess liver stiffness measurements in WD patients. 6.6kPa is considered to be a threshold value between mild and moderate fibrosis, whereas a value higher than 8.4 is indicative of severe fibrosis. More studies are now necessary to confirm the usefulness of Fibroscan® in managing chronic therapy for WD patients. Treatment of this disease is based on an initial active and prolonged chelating phase (with D-Penicillamine or Trientine) followed by maintenance with Trientine or zinc salt. The two major problems that may be encountered are neurological worsening during the initial phase and non-compliance with treatment during maintenance therapy. Liver transplantation is the recommended therapeutic option in WD with acute liver failure or end-stage liver cirrhosis; its indication should be considered when neurological status deteriorates rapidly despite effective chelation. Regular clinical, biological and liver ultrasound follow-up is essential to evaluate efficacy, tolerance and treatment compliance, but also to detect the onset of hepatocellular carcinoma on a cirrhotic liver. There are hopes in the near future with the introduction of a new chelator and inhibitor of copper absorption, tetrathiomolybdate (TTM) and the development of gene therapy.

Keywords: ATP7B; Copper; Exchangeable copper; Liver transplantation; Wilson's disease.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Biomarkers / analysis
  • Brain / diagnostic imaging
  • Ceruloplasmin / analysis
  • Chelating Agents / therapeutic use
  • Copper / analysis
  • Copper-Transporting ATPases
  • Cornea / diagnostic imaging
  • Genetic Therapy
  • Hepatocytes / transplantation
  • Hepatolenticular Degeneration / diagnosis*
  • Hepatolenticular Degeneration / genetics
  • Hepatolenticular Degeneration / therapy*
  • High-Throughput Nucleotide Sequencing
  • Humans
  • Liver / diagnostic imaging
  • Liver Transplantation
  • Phenotype
  • Prevalence
  • Transduction, Genetic


  • Biomarkers
  • Chelating Agents
  • Copper
  • Ceruloplasmin
  • ATP7B protein, human
  • Copper-Transporting ATPases