Mutations in the retina-specific ABC transporter (ABCR) gene are responsible for autosomal recessive Stargardt disease (arSTGD). Mutation detection efficiency in ABCR in arSTGD patients ranges between 30% and 66% in previously published studies, because of high allelic heterogeneity and technical limitations of the employed methods. Conditions were developed to screen the ABCR gene by double-gradient denaturing-gradient gel electrophoresis. The efficacy of this method was evaluated by analysis of DNA samples with previously characterized ABCR mutations. This approach was applied to mutation detection in 44 Italian arSTGD patients corresponding to 36 independent genomes, in order to assess the nature and frequency of the ABCR mutations in this ethnic group. In 34 of 36 (94.4%) STGD patients, 37 sequence changes were identified, including 26 missense, six frameshift, three splicing, and two nonsense variations. Among these, 20 had not been previously described. Several polymorphisms were detected in affected individuals and in matched controls. Our findings extend the spectrum of mutations identified in STGD patients and suggest the existence of a subset of molecular defects specific to the Italian population. The identification of at least two disease-associated mutations in four healthy control individuals indicates a higher than expected carrier frequency of variant ABCR alleles in the general population. Genotype-phenotype analysis in our series showed a possible correlation between the nature and location of some mutations and specific ophthalmoscopic features of STGD disease.
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