Genetic Nerve Disease Puts Photographer on Other Side of the Lens

New Genetic Disease Affects Ashkenazi Adults

Both Sides of the Camera: Before he was diagnosed with the genetic disease APBD, Robert Zuckerman was a photographer at Hollywood film sets, shooting stars such as Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson.
Courtesy of Robert Zuckerman
Both Sides of the Camera: Before he was diagnosed with the genetic disease APBD, Robert Zuckerman was a photographer at Hollywood film sets, shooting stars such as Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson.

By Yardain Amron

Published August 11, 2014, issue of August 15, 2014.

It began as just a limp — and then it puzzled doctors for seven years.

Back in 2003, Hollywood was Robert Zuckerman’s stomping ground. The acclaimed photographer, then 48, was at the peak of his career, preparing to shoot the promotional materials for the Disney blockbuster “National Treasure” starring Nicolas Cage and Harvey Keitel. He was too busy, it seemed, to notice his leg wasn’t working quite right.

“I walked into the music manager’s office, and he said, ‘Hey Robert, why are you limping?’” Zuckerman, now 59, recalled.

So he had himself examined. At first, the doctors thought it was multiple sclerosis; then, a herniated disk. But the symptoms just didn’t fit together: the immense fatigue, often after the smallest of excursions, the numbness in his toes, the urinary incontinence. A spinal tap, multiple brain scans and years later, Zuckerman was still without an accurate diagnosis.

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But those symptoms, which usually present themselves when patients are between the ages of 35 and 60, suggest a classic case of APBD, or adult polyglucosan body disease. The disease is inherited through an autosomal recessive genetic mutation, which means that both copies of genes must have the mutation for the disorder to be expressed. It primarily affects Ashkenazi Jews. With fewer than 200 diagnosed cases worldwide, most of which are in Israel, APBD is relatively unknown even within the medical community. Such unfamiliarity leads to many misdiagnoses of more common conditions with similar symptoms, like prostate cancer, dementia, Lou Gehrig’s disease, Alzheimer’s, and MS. To make the symptoms easier to remember, the letters of APBD have been given alternative meanings: A for Ashkenazi, P for peripheral neuropathy (numbness in the toes), B for bladder issues and D for decreased energy. Research for treatment and cures is still in its infancy.

The only study designed to determine how the disease is inherited relied on a sample of just 380 Ashkenazi Jews and found that 1 in 35 had the mutation. This high carrier rate is similar to diseases for which preconception screening is readily available and encouraged, such as familial dysautonomia (1 in 30) and Tay-Sachs (1 in 25). The results of this small 2012 study, published in the journal Biochemical and Biophysical Research Communications, might not be statistically significant, cautioned Adele Schneider, medical director of the Victor Center for Jewish Genetic Diseases. She was not involved in the research but called it “a good start.” “If the carrier rate really is that high, then there is a problem with diagnosing patients,” she added.

The mutation occurs in the GBE1 gene and disrupts the glycogen branching enzyme (GBE) charged with the production of glycogen, the reserve energy stored in cells for use when glucose levels bottom out. Without normal GBE activity, misshapen glycogen forms long strands that can’t be used for fuel. The strands build up, causing damage to nerve cells.

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