The term myasthenia gravis (MG), from the Latin “grave muscle weakness,” denotes the rare autoimmune disorder characterized by dysfunction at the neuromuscular junction.1 The clinical presentation of the disease is variable but most often includes ocular symptoms, such as ptosis and diplopia, bulbar weakness, and muscle fatigue upon exertion.2,3 Severe symptoms can lead to myasthenic crisis, in which generalized weakness can affect respiratory muscles, leading to possible intubation or death.2,3
Onset of disease ranges from childhood to late adulthood, and largely depends on the subgroup of disease and the age of the patient.4 Although complications from MG can arise, treatment methods have considerably reduced the risk of MG-associated mortality, with the current rate estimated to be 0.06 to 0.89 deaths for every 1 million person-years (that is, approximately 5% of cases).3,5
MG is caused by binding of autoimmune antibodies to postsynaptic receptors and by molecules that prevent signal transduction at the muscle endplate.2,4,6,7 The main culprit behind the pathology (in approximately 85% of cases) is an autoimmune antibody for the acetylcholine receptor (AChR); however, other offending antibodies – against muscle-specific serine kinases (MuSK), low-density lipoprotein receptor-related protein 4 (LRP4), and the proteoglycan agrin – are known, although at a lower frequency (in approximately 15% of cases).4,8 These antibodies prevent signal transmission by blocking, destroying, or disrupting the clustering of AChR at the muscle endplate, a necessary step in formation of the neuromuscular junction.4,8,9
The activity of these antibodies is key to understanding the importance of subgrouping the types of MG on the basis of antigen-specific autoimmune interactions. Specifically, the four categories of disease following a diagnosis of MG2,7 are:
- AChR antibody-positive.
- MuSK antibody-positive.
- LRP4 antibody-positive.
- Seronegative MG.
Classifying MG into subgroups gives insight into the functional expectations and potential treatment options for a given patient, although expectations can vary.2
Regrettably, the well-understood pathophysiology, diagnosis, and prognosis of MG have limited investigation and development of new therapies. Additionally, mainstay treatments, such as thymectomy and prednisone, work to alleviate symptoms for most patients, and have also contributed to periods of slowed research and development. However, treatment of refractory MG has, in recent years, become the subject of research on new therapeutic options, aimed at treating heterogeneous disease populations.10
In this review, we discuss the diagnosis of, and treatment options for, MG, and provide an update on promising options in the therapeutic pipeline.