Background. Familial hypercholesterolemia (FH) is a dominantly-inherited disorder attributable to a defect in the low-density lipoprotein (LDL) receptor gene. Five mutations at this locus have been identified in French-Canadians. In children, it may be difficult to clinically distinguish FH from other forms of polygenic or monogenic hyperlipidemia. Therefore, our objectives were to define the molecular basis of our subjects' hypercholesterolemia, to characterize their biochemical phenotype in relation to the underlying molecular defect, and to assess their response to chronic dietary therapy.

Methods. We studied 88 unrelated French-Canadian children with a persistent increase in LDL cholesterol and a parental history of hyperlipidemia. Baseline and end-of-diet lipid and apolipoprotein levels were measured. Mutational analysis at the LDL receptor gene locus was performed.

Results. Heterozygosity for the common French-Canadian LDL receptor gene >10-kb deletion was found in 57% of subjects (group 1), 14% carried one of the other four previously characterized LDL receptor gene mutations (group 2), and none of the five molecular defects tested was detected in 29% (group 3). Total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol, and apolipoprotein B baseline levels were similar among these three groups but significantly higher than in control subjects. However, there was wide interindividual variability even among those carrying the same mutation. Significantly lower baseline levels of high-density lipoprotein cholesterol and apolipoprotein A1 were found in group 1 compared with group 3 and the controls. The response to diet was similar among the three groups with an average reduction in the mean level of total cholesterol of 4.4%.

Conclusions. The frequency of proven FH heterozygotes (71%) was remarkable in the pediatric population studied. Our data suggest that, in children, a persistent primary increase in LDL cholesterol associated with a parental history of hyperlipidemia is a good predictor of an underlying monogenic disorder as opposed to a polygenic disorder, at least in French-Canadians. Only molecular analysis allowed us to unequivocally define the cause of our patients' hypercholesterolemia. Most children with familial hyperlipidemia did not reach desirable plasma lipid levels solely under diet therapy.

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