Background: People with Gilbert's syndrome have mild, chronic unconjugated hyperbilirubinemia in the absence of liver disease or overt hemolysis. Hepatic glucuronidating activity, essential for efficient biliary excretion of bilirubin, is reduced to about 30 percent of normal.
Methods: We sequenced the coding and promoter regions of the gene for bilirubin UDP-glucuronosyltransferase 1 (bilirubin/uridine diphosphoglucuronate-glucuronosyltransferase 1)--the only enzyme that contributes substantially to bilirubin glucuronidation--in 10 unrelated patients with Gilbert's syndrome, 16 members of a kindred with a history of Crigler-Najjar syndrome type II, and 55 normal subjects.
Results: The coding region of the gene for the enzyme was normal in the 10 patients with Gilbert's syndrome. These patients were homozygous for two extra bases (TA) in the TATAA element of the 5' promoter region of the gene (A(TA)7TAA rather than the normal A(TA)6TAA). The presence of the longer TATAA element resulted in the reduced expression of a reporter gene, encoding firefly luciferase, in a human hepatoma cell line. The frequency of the abnormal allele was 40 percent among the normal subjects. The 3 men in the control group who were homozygous for the longer TATAA element had significantly higher serum bilirubin levels than the other 52 normal subjects (P = 0.009). Among the kindred with a history of Crigler-Najjar syndrome type II, only the six heterozygous carriers who had a longer TATAA element on the structurally normal allele had mild hyperbilirubinemia, characteristic of Gilbert's syndrome.
Conclusions: Reduced expression of bilirubin UDP-glucuronosyltransferase 1 due to an abnormality in the promoter region of the gene for this enzyme appears to be necessary for Gilbert's syndrome but not sufficient for the complete manifestation of the syndrome.