Download the PDF leaflet

What is Alport’s Syndrome?

Alport’s syndrome is an inherited kidney disease.  This means it runs in families and is caused by a genetic mutation. Men are more severely affected than women.  It can affect lead to deafness as well as kidney failure.

Why it is called Alport’s Syndrome?

Alport’s syndrome is named after Dr A. Cecil Alport, who recognised families with the syndrome in 1927. He was born in 1880 in South Africa, and graduated as a doctor in Edinburgh. At first he worked in Johannesburg (owning a small gold mine). After the First World War he moved to St Mary's Hospital, Paddington, London, where he was working when he described the syndrome of hereditary renal failure and deafness. Later he worked in Cairo, and died in 1959.

What Causes Alport’s Syndrome, and differences between men and women?

Alport’s syndrome is caused by an abnormality in collagen in the body. Collagen is a ‘building block’, giving parts of the body not supported by bone their shape and strength. There is one particular type of collagen found mostly in the kidney and the ear, and this is affected in Alport’s syndrome, leading to kidney failure and partial deafness. Women with Alport’s syndrome are able to produce more normal collagen than men, and usually have mild disease. However they can pass Alport’s syndrome with kidney failure to their sons.

Collagen is a ‘building block’, giving parts of the body not supported by bone their shape and strength. Cells, tiny packages of tissue that work to make energy and do all the 'work' inside our bodies, have no strength themselves. If cells were not held together, the human body would be like a lump of jelly. Bones are important in giving the human body shape and rigidity, but even soft tissues need holding together. This is the job of collagen.

There are several types of collagen, each of which are found in different parts of the body. Type 4 collagen is important in the kidney, ears and, to a lesser extent, in the eye. Type 4 collagen is the type of collagen which is abnormal in Alport’s syndrome. This abnormality occurs because the genetic code, which tells the body how to make collagen, is abnormal. Every gene as a specific name and the gene affected in Alport’s syndrome is called the COL4A5 gene.

The type 4 collagen gene is found on the ‘X’ chromosome, which determines the sex of a person. The human body has two copies of each chromosome, one from each parent. There are 23 pairs of chromosomes, so there are 46 chromosomes in total. One pair determines whether a person is male or female. This pair is made up of ‘X’ and ‘Y’ chromosomes. If someone has 2 X chromosomes  ‘XX’, they are female. If someone has one X chromosome and one Y chromosome,  ‘XY’, they are male. The ‘Y’ chromosome is smaller than the ‘X’ chromosome,  The Y chromosome is smaller than the ‘X’ chromosome, and it so happens that the COL4A5 gene is missing from the ‘Y’ chromosome. Therefore, if a male has a defective COL4A5 gene, there is no normal copy to help produce normal type 4 collagen.

A woman has two ‘X’ chromosomes. If one is abnormal, there is a second copy which is normal to help produce normal type 4 collagen.

This type of inheritance, which is called 'sex linked' is important when family screening is considered. 

How is Alport’s Syndrome diagnosed?

Alport’s syndrome can be diagnosed in several ways. First, if Alport’s syndrome is known to run in the family, a simple test for blood in the urine may be enough to be fairly sure of the diagnosis. Second, someone with kidney disease might have a kidney biopsy (sample of kidney removed with a needle). Alport’s syndrome has a particular appearance in the kidney when examined under the microscope. Lastly, testing for the abnormal gene in Alport’s syndrome is sometimes possible. 

Family screening

An explanation of which family members should be screened is given later. If someone is to be screened because of a family history, it may only be necessary to check the urine for blood. This can be done by taking a small sample of urine and dipping into it on a small plastic stick. Alport’s syndrome causes small amounts of blood to appear in the urine from a very early age. This test is not completely foolproof - a negative urine test may need to be repeated several times to be sure there is no blood, and blood can be present for other reasons, such as a urine infection.

Kidney biopsy

Alport’s syndrome causes a unique appearance when the kidney is examined under the microscope. The membrane that filters blood to make urine is split into several layers. Splitting is generally seen in men and in some women. Sometimes the membrane may just be very thin, which can make it more difficult to diagnose Alport’s syndrome.

If someone with a known family history of Alport’s syndrome has blood in the urine, it is usually not necessary to perform a kidney biopsy. However, in some cases where the diagnosis is not proven, it may be necessary. Kidney biopsy carries a small risk of bleeding. For more information Click here

Genetic testing

The genetic abnormalities in the COL4A5 gene that cause Alport’s (for an explanation of what the COL4A5 is, were first described in the 1980s, but it has proved very difficult to use genetic tests to diagnose Alport’s syndrome. The problem is that many different (well over 50) genetic abnormalities can cause Alport’s, and these differ from family to family. Genetic tests looking for a single genetic abnormality are relatively easy to perform. If it is possible to determine which genetic abnormality is present in a particular family, testing is possible.

Technology is available to perform tests on human embryos in the laboratory, so that the production of a child without Alport’s syndrome can be guaranteed. However, these techniques mean that the human egg has to be fertilised ‘in vitro’, in other words a ‘test tube baby’.

If you want to know more about genetic testing, you should consult a kidney specialist and a genetic specialist for up to date information.

Diagnosis if typical eye abnormalities are found

Sometimes Alport’s syndrome is diagnosed after an eye specialist has noticed the unusual eye problems that Alport’s can cause. Also,high tone deafness in someone with a family history of kidney trouble may alert a doctor to the possibility of Alport’s syndrome.

Is Alport’s Syndrome common?

Alport’s syndrome is not common. One or two out of 100 people starting dialysis have Alport’s syndrome, with a frequency in the general population of about 1 in 5,000, to 1 in 10,000.

Is there any treatment to prevent kidney failure in Alport’s Syndrome?

At present there is no cure for Alport’s syndrome. However, treatment of the problems caused by Alport’s syndrome is very important. The rate of damage to the kidneys can be reduced by careful treatment of the blood pressure.

There is no genetic cure for Alport’s. At present, the abnormal gene cannot be replaced with a normal one.

However, as in all types of kidney disease, much can be done to try and reduce the rate of kidney damage, and to make someone feel as normal as possible as kidney failure develops.

High blood pressure is the most important factor that can speed up the decline in kidney function. Damaged kidneys cause high blood pressure, because one of the jobs of the kidneys is to control the level of blood pressure. High blood pressure damages the kidneys further, and so a vicious cycle develops. Strict control of the blood pressure can break this cycle, delaying the need for dialysis by years in some cases. There is some evidence that high blood pressure can start in childhood, so that starting treatment for high blood pressure even before the age of 10 can be beneficial. Click here for information on high blood pressure.

Treatment for high blood pressure consists of a healthy, salt free diet with exercise. Any excess weight should be lost. Stop smoking and drink no alcohol, or have only a moderate intake. In most people with significant kidney disease, it is also necessary to use drugs to reduce the blood pressure. Up to 4 or 5 different types of drugs may be necessary in some people. Click here for information on drugs for controlling blood pressure.

As kidney failure becomes advanced, anaemia may develop, which can be treated effectively with a drug called EPO.

What about ear and eye damage - is this serious?

Someone with Alport’s syndrome should also have ear and eye tests to detect any problems. Men with Alport’s syndrome may, but not always, develop marked hearing loss as they become young adults and may need to wear a hearing aid. Complete deafness is not common. Eye problems hardly ever cause blindness, but may need specialist treatment. 

Men with Alport’s syndrome, and women who have evidence of marked kidney involvement, should have ear and eye tests.

The ear contains type 4 collagen and is affected by Alport’s syndrome. Men are affected more than women. Men may develop bilateral partial deafness, especially for high tones, and may require a hearing aid by the time they are in their late teens. However, this is not universal in Alport’s. Kidney failure may make the deafness worse, with some improvement after a kidney transplant. Women may have some hearing loss that could be detected by special tests done in hospital, but this does not often cause problems with normal conversation.

The medical term for the most common problem in the eye is ‘bilateral anterior lenticonus’ This means that, in both eyes, the front surface of the lens, the part of the eye over the pupil, bulges forwards. This change may be slight, and not visible to the naked eye. It may cause short sightedness, and it may be necessary to wear glasses. There may also be some dots and flecks on the back of the eye, but these are only visible to an eye specialist and should not affect vision.

Does everyone with Alport’s Syndrome develop kidney failure?

Nearly all the men and about 1 in 10 women with Alport’s syndrome develop kidney failure. However, Alport’s syndrome can vary slightly from family to family. There is also a rare subtype of Alport’s in which kidney failure occurs in childhood.

It is rare for men with Alport’s to develop kidney failure before the age of 10 years. Most men develop kidney failure between the ages of 15 and 30, though in some families this is delayed to 50-70 years. Kidney failure develops slowly over a period of years, so that the need for dialysis can be planned; or in some cases, a kidney transplant might be carried out before dialysis was necessary.

Women with Alport’s syndrome have tiny amounts of blood in their urine, sometimes with some protein. About 6 out of 10 women may develop protein in the urine (Click here for more details on this). Although protein in the urine suggests a risk for progression to kidney failure, in many cases the kidney function remains normal and only about 1 in 10 women with Alport’s syndrome ever need dialysis or a kidney transplant.

In about 1 in 10 families with Alport’s syndrome, the disease follows a more rapidly progressive course, with even women developing kidney failure at an early age. These families may have a different genetic abnormality. In medical terminology, the problem may lie in the COLA3 or COL4A4 genes, rather than COL4A5 gene, as in normal Alport’s syndrome.

Can people with Alport’s Syndrome have dialysis or a kidney transplant?

Alport’s syndrome does not cause particular problems with dialysis. Nearly all people with Alport’s syndrome and kidney failure can have a kidney transplant, so long as they are generally fit. Someone with Alport’s syndrome can have a kidney transplant from a healthy family member, though a transplant from a woman with Alport’s syndrome to her affected son remains experimental.

Should members of the family have tests to look for Alport’s Syndrome?

Yes. Both men and women with Alport’s syndrome have small amounts of blood in the urine from a very early age, so it is easy to test for Alport’s syndrome in relatives of someone known to be affected. However, it is not necessary to test every single family member. Specialist advice is necessary, but the inheritance of Alport’s syndrome is described in the ‘more details’ section

This description of the inheritance of Alport’s syndrome applies to the 9 out of 10 families who have the commoner genetic problem. Some families are more complicated, and advice should be taken from a specialist in genetics.

The need for testing family members will be discussed from the point of view of a man with Alport’s syndrome, and then from the point of view of a woman with Alport’s syndrome.

Who to test if a man has Alport’s syndrome

His parents

Alport’s syndrome should have been inherited from his mother, though occasionally the genetic abnormality has occurred for the first time in the affected person. His mother should have urine tests for blood. If there is blood in the urine, kidney function and blood pressure should be tested, and a kidney specialist consulted. If the mother is completely clear, the father should be checked, in case there is a rarer variant of Alport’s syndrome.

His brothers

There is a 50:50 chance that a brother will have Alport’s syndrome. Urine should be tested for blood. If he has blood in the urine, kidney function and blood pressure should be measured, and a kidney specialist consulted. A brother might have Alport’s syndrome, and could pass this onto his daughters. If there is no blood in the urine on several tests, he should not have the Alport’s syndrome gene, and so cannot pass the condition onto his children.

His sisters

There is a 50:50 chance that each sister will have Alport’s syndrome, though remember that this is less serious in women than in men. Urine should be tested for blood. If she has blood in the urine, kidney function and blood pressure should be measured, and a kidney specialist consulted. If she has Alport’s syndrome, she could pass this onto her children. If there is no blood in the urine on several tests, she should not have Alport’s syndrome, and so cannot pass the condition onto her children.

His sons

A man with Alport’s syndrome cannot pass the condition onto his sons (unless he has one of the rarer variants of the disease). This is because the abnormal gene is on the ‘X’ chromosome, and in order to have a son, a man has to pass on his ‘Y’ chromosome to the child, and this does not carry Alport’s syndrome(for more information on ‘X’ and ‘Y’ chromosomes in Alports syndrome, click here).

His daughters

Each daughter will have Alport’s syndrome, though remember that this is less serious in women than in men. Urine should be tested for blood to confirm the diagnosis. Kidney function and blood pressure should be measured, and a kidney specialist consulted. She could pass Alport’s syndrome onto her children (see below).

Who to test if a woman has Alport’s syndrome

Her parents

Alport’s syndrome should have been inherited from her mother or father. Her parents should have urine tests for blood. If there is blood in the urine, kidney function and blood pressure should be tested, and a kidney specialist consulted.

Her brothers

If Alport’s syndrome is inherited from the father, the male children should not have the syndrome. If Alport’s is inherited from the mother’s side, there is a 50:50 chance that he will have Alport’s syndrome. Urine should be tested for blood. If there is blood in the urine, kidney function and blood pressure should be measured, and a kidney specialist consulted. He might have Alport’s syndrome, and could pass this onto his daughters. If there is no blood in the urine on several tests, he should not have Alport’s syndrome, and so cannot pass the condition onto his children.

Her sisters

If Alport’s syndrome is inherited from the father, the female children should all have Alport’s syndrome. If Alport’s syndrome is inherited from the mother’s side, there is a 50:50 chance that the sister will have Alport’s syndrome. Urine should be tested for blood. If there is blood in the urine, kidney function and blood pressure should be measured, and a kidney specialist consulted. She might have Alport’s syndrome, and could pass this onto her children. If there is no blood in the urine on several tests, she should not have Alport’s syndrome, and so cannot pass the condition onto her children.

Her sons

There is a 50:50 chance that each son would have Alport’s syndrome. Urine should be tested for blood. If there is blood in the urine, kidney function and blood pressure should be measured, and a kidney specialist consulted. He might have Alport’s syndrome, and could pass this onto his daughters. If there is no blood in the urine on several tests, he should not have Alport’s syndrome, and so cannot pass the condition onto his children.

Her daughters

There is a 50:50 chance that a daughter will have Alport’s syndrome. Urine should be tested for blood. If there is blood in the urine, kidney function and blood pressure should be measured, and a kidney specialist consulted. She might have Alport’s syndrome, and could pass this onto her children. If there is no blood in the urine on several tests, she should not have Alport’s syndrome, and so cannot pass the condition onto her children.

The National Kidney Federation cannot accept responsibility for information provided. The above is for guidance only. Patients are advised to seek further information from their own doctor.