Review and hypothesis: Does graves' disease develop in non-human great apes?

Sandra M. McLachlan, Kristine Alpi, Basil Rapoport

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

21 Scopus citations


Background: Graves' disease, caused by stimulatory thyrotropin receptor (TSHR) autoantibodies, has not been observed in animals. In contrast, Hashimoto's thyroiditis develops in chickens, rats, mice, dogs, and marmosets. Attempts to induce an immune response in mice to the luteinizing-hormone receptor suggested that autoantigen glycosylation was one parameter involved in breaking self-tolerance. Over evolution, TSHR glycosylation increased from three asparagine-linked-glycans (N-glycans) in fish to six N-glycans in humans and great apes. All other placental mammals lack one N-glycan in the shed TSHR A-subunit, the primary Graves' disease autoantigen. We hypothesized that (a) lesser TSHR A-subunit glycosylation reduces immunogenicity, accounting for the absence of Graves' disease in most placental mammals; (b) due to human-like A-subunit glycosylation, Graves' disease might arise in great apes. Here, we review and analyze the literature on this subject and report the results of a survey of veterinarians at primate centers and zoos in North America. Summary: Previous experimental data from induced TSHR antibodies in mice support a role for A-subunit glycosylation in breaking self-tolerance. An extensive search of the great-ape literature revealed five reports of noncongenital thyroid dysfunction, four with hypothyroidism and one with hyperthyroidism. The latter was a gorilla who was treated with anti-thyroid drugs but is now deceased. Neither serum nor thyroid tissue from this gorilla were available for analysis. The survey of veterinarians revealed that none of the 979 chimpanzees in primate research centers had a diagnosis of noncongenital thyroid dysfunction and among*1100 great apes (gorillas, orangutans, and chimpanzees) in U.S. zoos, only three were hypothyroid, and none were hyperthyroid. Conclusions: Graves' disease appears to be either very rare or does not occur in great apes based on the literature and a survey of veterinarians. Although the available data do not advance our hypothesis, there is a paucity of information regarding thyroid function tests and thyroid autoantibodies in the great apes In addition, these primates may be protected against TSHR autoimmunity by the absence of genetic polymorphisms and putative environmental triggers. Finally, larger numbers of great apes need to be followed, and tests of thyroid function and thyroid autoantibodies be performed, to confirm that spontaneous Graves' disease is restricted to humans.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1359-1366
Number of pages8
Issue number12
StatePublished - Dec 1 2011
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Endocrinology, Diabetes and Metabolism
  • Endocrinology


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