What is heterotaxy syndrome?
Heterotaxy syndrome is a condition in which the internal organs are abnormally arranged in the chest and abdomen. The term "heterotaxy" is from the Greek words "heteros," meaning "other than," and "taxis," meaning "arrangement." Individuals with this condition have complex birth defects affecting the heart, lungs, liver, spleen, intestines, and other organs.
In the normal body, most of the organs in the chest and abdomen have a particular location on the right or left side. For example, the heart, spleen, and pancreas are on the left side of the body, and most of the liver is on the right. This normal arrangement of the organs is known as "situs solitus." Rarely, the orientation of the internal organs is completely flipped from right to left, a situation known as "situs inversus." This mirror-image orientation usually does not cause any health problems, unless it occurs as part of a syndrome affecting other parts of the body. Heterotaxy syndrome is an arrangement of internal organs somewhere between situs solitus and situs inversus; this condition is also known as "situs ambiguus." Unlike situs inversus, the abnormal arrangement of organs in heterotaxy syndrome often causes serious health problems.
Heterotaxy syndrome alters the structure of the heart, including the attachment of the large blood vessels that carry blood to and from the rest of the body. It can also affect the structure of the lungs, such as the number of lobes in each lung and the length of the tubes (called bronchi) that lead from the windpipe to the lungs. In the abdomen, the condition can cause a person to have no spleen (asplenia) or multiple small, poorly functioning spleens (polysplenia). The liver may lie across the middle of the body instead of being in its normal position to the right of the stomach. Some affected individuals also have intestinal malrotation, which is an abnormal twisting of the intestines that occurs in the early stages of development before birth.
Depending on the organs involved, signs and symptoms of heterotaxy syndrome can include a bluish appearance of the skin or lips (cyanosis, which is due to a shortage of oxygen), breathing difficulties, an increased risk of infections, and problems with digesting food. The most serious complications are generally caused by critical congenital heart disease, a group of complex heart defects that are present from birth. Biliary atresia, a problem with the bile ducts in the liver, can also cause severe health problems in infancy. Heterotaxy syndrome is often life-threatening in infancy or childhood, even with treatment, although its severity depends on the specific abnormalities involved.
Read more about critical congenital heart disease.
How common is heterotaxy syndrome?
The prevalence of heterotaxy syndrome is estimated to be 1 in 10,000 people worldwide. However, researchers suspect that the condition is underdiagnosed, and so it may actually be more common than this. Heterotaxy syndrome accounts for approximately 3 percent of all congenital heart defects. For reasons that are unknown, the condition appears to be more common in Asian populations than in North America and Europe. Recent studies report that in the United States, the condition occurs more frequently in children born to black or Hispanic mothers than in children born to white mothers.
What genes are related to heterotaxy syndrome?
Heterotaxy syndrome can be caused by mutations in many different genes. The proteins produced from most of these genes play roles in determining which structures should be on the right side of the body and which should be on the left, a process known as establishing left-right asymmetry. This process occurs during the earliest stages of embryonic development. Dozens of genes are probably involved in establishing left-right asymmetry; mutations in at least 20 of these genes have been identified in people with heterotaxy syndrome.
In some cases, heterotaxy syndrome is caused by mutations in genes whose involvement in determining left-right asymmetry is unknown. Rarely, chromosomal changes such as insertions, deletions, duplications, and other rearrangements of genetic material have been associated with this condition.
Heterotaxy syndrome can occur by itself, or it can be a feature of other genetic syndromes that have additional signs and symptoms. For example, at least 12 percent of people with a condition called primary ciliary dyskinesia have heterotaxy syndrome. In addition to abnormally positioned internal organs, primary ciliary dyskinesia is characterized by chronic respiratory tract infections and an inability to have children (infertility). The signs and symptoms of this condition are caused by abnormal cilia, which are microscopic, finger-like projections that stick out from the surface of cells. It appears that cilia play a critical role in establishing left-right asymmetry before birth.
Studies suggest that certain factors affecting a woman during pregnancy may also contribute to the risk of heterotaxy syndrome in her child. These include diabetes mellitus; smoking; and exposure to hair dyes, cocaine, and certain laboratory chemicals.
Some people with heterotaxy syndrome have no identified gene mutations or other risk factors. In these cases, the cause of the condition is unknown.
See a list of genes associated with heterotaxy syndrome.
Read more about primary ciliary dyskinesia.
How do people inherit heterotaxy syndrome?
Most often, heterotaxy syndrome is sporadic, meaning that only one person in a family is affected. However, about 10 percent of people with heterotaxy syndrome have a close relative (such as a parent or sibling) who has a congenital heart defect without other apparent features of heterotaxy syndrome. Isolated congenital heart defects and heterotaxy syndrome may represent a range of signs and symptoms that can result from a particular genetic mutation; this situation is known as variable expressivity. It is also possible that different genetic and environmental factors combine to produce isolated congenital heart defects in some family members and heterotaxy syndrome in others.
When heterotaxy syndrome runs in families, it can have an autosomal dominant, autosomal recessive, or X-linked pattern of inheritance, depending on which gene is involved. Autosomal dominant inheritance means that one copy of the altered gene in each cell is sufficient to cause the disorder. Autosomal recessive inheritance means that both copies of the gene in each cell have mutations. The parents of an individual with an autosomal recessive condition each carry one copy of the mutated gene, but they typically do not show signs and symptoms of the condition. In X-linked inheritance, the mutated gene that causes the disorder is located on the X chromosome, one of the two sex chromosomes in each cell.
When heterotaxy syndrome occurs as a feature of primary ciliary dyskinesia, it has an autosomal recessive pattern of inheritance.
Where can I find information about diagnosis or management of heterotaxy syndrome?
These resources address the diagnosis or management of heterotaxy syndrome and may include treatment providers.
- Boston Children's Hospital: Tests for Heterotaxy
- Gene Review: Primary Ciliary
- Genetic Testing Registry: Atrioventricular septal defect, partial, with heterotaxy
- Genetic Testing Registry: Heterotaxy
You might also find information on the diagnosis or management of heterotaxy syndrome inEducational resources and Patient support.
General information about the diagnosis and management of genetic conditions is available in the Handbook. Read more about genetic testing, particularly the difference between clinical tests and research tests.
To locate a healthcare provider, see How can I find a genetics professional in my area? in the Handbook.
Where can I find additional information about heterotaxy syndrome?
You may find the following resources about heterotaxy syndrome helpful. These materials are written for the general public.
You may also be interested in these resources, which are designed for healthcare professionals and researchers.
What other names do people use for heterotaxy syndrome?
- Ivemark syndrome
- left isomerism
- right isomerism
- situs ambiguus
- situs ambiguus viscerum
- visceral heterotaxy
What if I still have specific questions about heterotaxy syndrome?
Where can I find general information about genetic conditions?
The Handbook provides basic information about genetics in clear language.
- What does it mean if a disorder seems to run in my family?
- What are the different ways in which a genetic condition can be inherited?
- If a genetic disorder runs in my family, what are the chances that my children will have the condition?
- Why are some genetic conditions more common in particular ethnic groups?
These links provide additional genetics resources that may be useful.
What glossary definitions help with understanding heterotaxy syndrome?
atresia ; autosomal ; autosomal dominant ; autosomal recessive ; bile ; bronchi ; cell ; chromosome ;chronic ; congenital ; cyanosis ; diabetes ; diabetes mellitus ; dyskinesia ; embryonic ; expressivity ;gene ; growth factor ; heterotaxy ; infertility ; inheritance ; mutation ; oxygen ; pancreas ;pattern of inheritance ; prevalence ; recessive ; respiratory ; risk factors ; sex chromosomes ;situs inversus ; sporadic ; stomach ; syndrome
You may find definitions for these and many other terms in the Genetics Home Reference Glossary.
See also Understanding Medical Terminology.
References (9 links)
The resources on this site should not be used as a substitute for professional medical care or advice. Users seeking information about a personal genetic disease, syndrome, or condition should consult with a qualified healthcare professional. See How can I find a genetics professional in my area? in the Handbook