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Learning About WAGR Syndrome

What is WAGR syndrome?

WAGR syndrome is a rare genetic condition that can affect both boys and girls. Babies born with WAGR syndrome often have eye problems, and are at high risk for developing certain types of cancer, and mental retardation. The term "WAGR" stands for the first letters of the physical and mental problems associated with the condition:

  • (W)ilms' Tumor, the most common form of kidney cancer in children.
  • (A)niridia, some or complete absence of the colored part of the eye, called the iris (singular), or irises/irides (plural).
  • (G)enitourinary problems, such as testicles that are not descended or hypospadias (abnormal location of the opening for urination) in boys, or genital or urinary problems inside the body in girls.
  • Mental (R)etardation.

Most people who have WAGR syndrome have two or more of these conditions. Also, people can have WAGR syndrome, but not have all of the above conditions.

Other names for WAGR syndrome that are used are:

  • WAGR Complex
  • Wilms' Tumor-Aniridia-Genitourinary Anomalies-Mental Retardation Syndrome
  • Wilms' Tumor-Aniridia-Gonadoblastoma-Mental Retardation Syndrome
  • Chromosome 11p deletion syndrome
  • 11p deletion syndrome

The cause of WAGR syndrome is deletion of a group of genes located on chromosome number 11 (11p13 - the "p13" refers to the specific place on chromosome 11 that is affected). Chromosomes are packages of genetic characteristics. There are 22 pairs of chromosomes that are the same in males and females. The 23rd pair determines a person's sex with males having an X and Y chromosome and females having two X chromosomes.

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What are the symptoms of WAGR syndrome?

WAGR is called a genetic syndrome. The symptoms of WAGR syndrome are usually seen after the baby is born. The mother's pregnancy and the baby's birth history are not unusual. Enlargement of the baby's kidneys may be seen on a prenatal ultrasound. The eye problems (aniridia) are usually noticed in the newborn period, and for infant boys, the problems with the genitals and urinary systems are also usually obvious in the newborn period.

Individuals born with WAGR syndrome are at higher risk for developing other problems during infancy, childhood, and adulthood. These problems can affect the kidneys, eyes, testes or ovaries. The specific symptoms that happen in a person who has WAGR syndrome depend on the combination of disorders that are present.

Wilms' tumor: About one half of individuals who have WAGR syndrome develop a type of kidney cancer called Wilms' tumor. In the early stages of Wilms' tumor there are usually no symptoms. The first signs of this cancer may be blood in the urine, a low-grade fever, loss of appetite, weight loss, lack of energy or swelling of the abdomen.

Aniridia: In infants who are born with aniridia that is associated with WAGR syndrome, the irises of the eyes fail to develop normally before birth. This causes partial or complete absence of the round colored part of the eye (iris). Aniridia is almost always present in babies born with WAGR syndrome. Other eye problems are often present or can develop as the child grows older. These include: clouding of the lens of the eye (cataract); rapid, involuntary movements of the eye (nystagmus); and all or partial loss of vision due to high pressure of the fluid in the eye (glaucoma).

Genital and urinary (GU) problems: A range of GU problems may be present in a baby born with WAGR syndrome. For boys, these may involve the urinary tract opening somewhere along the shaft of the penis rather than at the tip (hypospadias) or undescended testes (cryptorchidism). In girls, these problems may include underdeveloped (streak) ovaries, and malformations of the uterus, fallopian tubes or vagina. In some people with WAGR syndrome, problems with the development of the genitals may make their sexual assignment at birth (male or female) uncertain. Individuals with WAGR syndrome may have a higher risk for a type of cancer called gonadoblastoma, a cancer of the cells that form the testes in males and the ovaries in females.

Mental retardation: Mental retardation and developmental delay are common in children with WAGR syndrome. The severity of mental retardation varies from person to person, ranging from severe to mild mental retardation. Some children who have WAGR syndrome may have normal intelligence.

Other symptoms of WAGR syndrome may also include:
  • Developmental, behavioral, and/or psychiatric disorders including autism, attention deficit disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, anxiety disorders, and depression.
  • Early-onset overweight (obesity) and high blood cholesterol levels.
  • Excessive food intake (polyphagia/hyperphagia).
  • Chronic kidney failure, most often after age 12 years.
  • Breathing problems, asthma and pneumonia and breathing problems during sleep (sleep apnea).
  • Frequent infections of the ears, nose, and throat, especially during infancy and early childhood.
  • Teeth problems - crowded or uneven teeth.
  • Problems with muscle tone and strength, especially during infancy and childhood.
  • Seizure disorder (epilepsy).
  • Inflammation of the pancreas (pancreatitis).

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How is WAGR syndrome diagnosed?

Symptoms that suggest WAGR syndrome, like aniridia, are usually noted shortly after birth, and genetic testing for the 11p13 deletion is done. A genetic test called a chromosome analysis or karyotype is done to look for the deleted area (11p13) on chromosome number 11. A more specific genetic test called FISH (fluorescent in situ hybridization) is sometimes done to look for the deletion of specific genes on chromosome number 11.

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How is WAGR syndrome treated?

Treatment of WAGR syndrome is aimed at the specific symptoms present in the individual. Monitoring to look for problems is also important to catch problems early so that treatment can be given as soon as possible.

Wilms' tumor: Wilms' tumor happens in about half of children with WAGR syndrome. The tumor usually develops between the ages of 1 and 3 years. Most cases of Wilms' tumor have been detected by age 8 years, but in rare cases may occur later. Babies who are suspected to have WAGR syndrome should have ultrasounds of their abdomen at birth. They then need to have abdominal ultrasounds every 3 months until they reach age 8 years. Feeling the abdomen for signs of swelling and masses can be done by both the baby's doctor and the parents, when they are taught how to do this. After age 8 years, watching for signs of Wilms tumor may be done by ultrasound and/or by watching for symptoms such as a low-grade fever, loss of appetite, weight loss, lack of energy or swelling of the abdomen.

Wilms' tumor can often be treated successfully. The overall survival rate of patients with Wilms tumor is excellent and is related to the features of the tumor, and the stage of the disease. Treatment may include surgery to remove the kidney, radiation therapy and chemotherapy.

Aniridia: The treatment of aniridia is aimed at keeping the person's vision. Drugs or surgery may help when there is glaucoma or cataracts. Contact lenses can harm the cornea and should be avoided.

Genital and urinary problems: Children with WAGR syndrome should have regular evaluations to detect abnormal development of their ovaries or testes. Surgery may be needed to remove abnormal gonads or to prevent cancer of the gonads (gonadoblastoma). When both gonads are removed, the individual is given hormone replacement treatment. Surgery may also be done when a boy with WAGR syndrome has undescended testes. When girls with WAGR syndrome have abnormal ovaries, they have routine pelvic ultrasounds or MRI's (magnetic resonance imaging) to watch for the development of gonadoblastoma.

Mental Retardation/developmental delays: Individuals with WAGR syndrome may have mental retardation ranging from severe to mild. Some individuals with WAGR syndrome have normal intelligence.

Children with WAGR syndrome should be referred for Early Intervention Services soon after they are born, or when the diagnosis is made. Treatments include: vision therapy, physical, occupational and speech therapies. Special Education services are also used to help children with WAGR syndrome develop to their fullest ability.

Kidney (renal) failure: The renal failure that can happen in WAGR syndrome often causes the person to have high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and leakage of protein from the blood into the urine (called proteinuria). All individuals with WAGR syndrome should be routinely screened for high blood pressure and urinary protein. These problems are treated with medications called "ACE inhibitors" or "ARBs." Some people with WAGR syndrome and renal failure are treated with dialysis or kidney transplant.

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Is WAGR syndrome inherited?

WAGR syndrome is called a "contiguous gene deletion syndrome." This means that it is caused by the loss of a section of genes on chromosome 11 (11p13). Most of the time the changes on chromosome 11p13 happen by chance when the egg or sperm are being formed or during the very early stages of the baby's development in the womb. More rarely, the gene changes are inherited because one of the parents carries a rearrangement (called a translocation) between two chromosomes that can cause the loss of some genes when he or she has a baby. A baby can also have a mixture of normal cells and cells that have the 11p13 changes in his or her body. This is called mosaic WAGR syndrome.

Genetic counseling is helpful for determining whether there may be an increased risk of having another child with WAGR syndrome.

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NHGRI Clinical Research on WAGR Syndrome

Currently, NHGRI is not conducting clinical research on WAGR syndrome.

However, there are research trials on WAGR Syndrome conducted by other institutions and organizations:

For more information, contact:
  1. The International WAGR Syndrome and 11p Deletion Study
    A comprehensive study of WAGR Syndrome and other 11p deletions sponsored by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and open to all children and adults with WAGR syndrome or 11p deletions. The purpose of this study is to learn more about how the genes involved in WAGR syndrome and other 11p deletions affect people who have these conditions. Participating in the study involves providing blood samples and medical records to NIH investigators, and if certain criteria are met, the option of also having an inpatient evaluation at the NIH Clinical Research Center in Bethesda, Maryland. There is no cost for participating in the study. Eligible participants will be compensated for their time and transportation costs.

    Joan C. Han, M.D.
    WAGR Syndrome and 11p Deletion Study Investigator
    Program in Developmental Endocrinology and Genetics, NICHD, NIH

  2. National Wilms's Tumor Study Late Effects
    The National Wilms Tumor Study (NWTS) is currently conducting a Late Effects Study (LATE) designed to identify treatment related conditions that may develop in participants who were originally treated on one of our five clinical trials. The goals of all of our protocols have always included developing more effective and less damaging treatments for children with Wilms tumor and studying the cause of this disease. LATE is a federally funded, multi-institutional observational study that follows participants and their children throughout their lives in order to continue monitoring treatment results and possible late effects. Future clinical trial protocols will be conducted by the Children's Oncology Group (COG); click on to learn more about this organization.

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Additional Resources for WAGR Syndrome

  • International WAGR Syndrome Association []
    promotes international knowledge and awareness of WAGR syndrome and its complications and treatments, stimulates research and reaches out to those affected by WAGR syndrome.
  • American Kidney Fund, Inc. []
    A source for direct financial assistance to kidney patients and providing education to those with and at risk for kidney disease.
  • American Cancer Society, Inc. []
    The nationwide community-based voluntary health organization dedicated to eliminating cancer as a major health problem.
  • American Childhood Cancer Organization []
    A grassroots organization dedicated to improving the lives of children and adolescents with cancer and their families.
  • Aniridia Foundation International []
    A 501(c)3 non-profit charitable organization dedicated to assisting those with low vision or blindness due to the genetic blinding eye disease Aniridia.
  • Aniridia Network International []
    Supports people with aniridia and their families.
  • Friends of Cancer Research []
    A non-profit organization that raises awareness and provides public education on cancer research in order to accelerate the nation's progress toward better tools for the prevention, detection and treatment of all cancers.
  • Glaucoma Research Foundation []
    The Glaucoma Research Foundation funds innovative clinical, epidemiological and laboratory research.
  • March of Dimes Birth Defects Foundation []
    Works to improve the health of babies by preventing birth defects, premature birth and infant mortality.
  • National Kidney Foundation []
    A voluntary health organization that seeks to prevent kidney and urinary tract diseases, improve the health and well-being of individuals and families affected by these diseases, and increase the availability of all organs for transplantation.
  • National Wilms' Tumor Study []
    Supports and informs survivors of Wilms tumor, their families and friends, and the medical community which treats them.
  • National Eye Institute (NEI) []
    The NEI conducts and supports research that helps prevent and treat eye diseases and other disorders of vision.
  • WAGR Syndrome []
    Information from the Genetics and Rare Diseases Information Center.
  • Finding Reliable Health Information Online
    A listing of information and links for finding comprehensive genetics health information online.

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Last Updated: May 14, 2014

See Also:

Talking Glossary of Genetic Terms
Definitions for genetic terms used on this page.