Some science behind the scenes
Fibrodysplasia ossificans progressiva
Fibrodysplasia ossificans progressiva (FOP) is an extremely rare connective tissue disease. The disease is caused by a mutation of the body's repair mechanism, which causes fibrous tissue (including muscle, tendon, and ligament) to be ossified spontaneously or when damaged. In many cases, injuries can cause joints to become permanently frozen in place. Surgical removal of the extra bone growths has been shown to cause the body to "repair" the affected area with even more bone.
Children born with FOP have deformed big toes, possibly missing a joint or simply presenting with a notable lump at the minor joint. The first "flare-up" that leads to the formation of FOP bones usually occurs before the age of 10. The bone growth progresses from the top downward, just as bones grow in fetuses. A child with FOP will typically develop bones starting at the neck, then on the shoulders, arms, chest area and finally on the feet.
Specifically, FOP involvement is typically seen first in the dorsal, axial, cranial and proximal regions of the body. Later the disease progresses in the ventral, appendicular, caudal and distal regions of the body. However, it does not necessarily occur in this order due to injury-caused flare-ups. Often, the tumor-like lumps that characterize the disease appear suddenly. This condition causes loss of mobility to affected joints, including inability to fully open the mouth limiting speech and eating. Extra bone formation around the rib cage restricts the expansion of lungs and diaphragm causing breathing complications.
Since the disease is so rare, the symptoms are often misdiagnosed as cancer or fibrosis. This leads physicians to order biopsies, which can exacerbate the growth of these lumps. However, those born with FOP tend to have malformed toes or thumbs which help distinguish this disorder from other skeletal problems.
FOP is caused by an autosomal dominant allele on chromosome 2q23-24. The allele has variable expressivity, but complete penetrance. A similar but less catastrophic disease is fibrous dysplasia, which is caused by a post-zygotic mutation.
A mutation in the gene ACVR1 (also known as activin-like kinase 2 [ALK-2]) is responsible for the disease. ACVR1 encodes activin receptor type-1, a BMP type-1 receptor. The mutation causes substitution of codon 206 from arginine to histidine in the ACVR1 protein. This substitution causes abnormal activation of ACVR1, leading to the transformation of connective tissue and muscle tissue into a secondary skeleton. This causes endothelial cells to transform to mesenchymal stem cells and then to bone.
The gene that causes ossification is normally deactivated after a fetus's bones are formed in the womb, but in patients with FOP, the gene keeps working.