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Galactosemia is a rare but potentially life-threatening disease that results from the inability to metabolize galactose. Serious consequences from galactosemia can be prevented by screening newborns at birth with a simple blood test.

Galactosemia is an inborn error of metabolism. "Metabolism" refers to all chemical reactions that take place in living organisms. A metabolic pathway is a series of reactions where the product of each step in the series is the starting material for the next step. Enzymes are the chemicals that help the reactions occur. Their ability to function depends on their structure, and their structure is determined by the deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) sequence of the genes that encode them. Inborn errors of metabolism are caused by mutations in these genes which do not allow the enzymes to function properly.

Sugars are sometimes called "the energy molecules," and galactose and glucose are both sugars. For galactose to be utilized for energy, it must be transformed into something that can enter the metabolic pathway that converts glucose into energy (plus water and carbon dioxide). This is important for infants because they typically get most of their nutrient energy from milk, which contains a high level of galactose. Each molecule of lactose, the major sugar constituent of milk, is made up of a molecule of galactose and a molecule of glucose, and so galactose makes up 20% of the energy source of a typical infant's diet.

Three enzymes are required to convert galactose into glucose-1-phosphate (a phosphorylated glucose that can enter the metabolic pathway that turns glucose into energy). Each of these three enzymes is encoded by a separate gene. If any of these enzymes fail to function, galactose build-up and galactosemia result. Thus, there are three types of galactosemia with a different gene responsible for each.

Every cell in a person's body has two copies of each gene. Each of the forms of galactosemia is inherited as a recessive trait, which means that galactosemia is only present in individuals with two mutated copies of one of the three genes. This also means that carriers, with only one copy of a gene mutation, will not be aware that they are carrying a mutation (unless they have had a genetic test), as it is masked by the normal gene they also carry and they have no symptoms of the disease. For each step in the conversion of galactose to glucose, if only one of the two copies of the gene controlling that step is normal (i.e. for carriers), enough functional enzyme is made so that the pathway is not blocked at that step. If a person has galactosemia, both copies of the gene coding for one of the enzymes required to convert glucose to galactose are defective and the pathway becomes blocked. If two carriers of the same defective gene have children, the chance of any of their children getting galactosemia (the chance of a child getting two copies of the defective gene) is 25% (one in four) for each pregnancy.

Classic galactosemia occurs in the United States about one in every 50,000-70,000 live births.

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