Thanatophoric Dysplasia 

Updated: Sep 18, 2018
Author: Germaine L Defendi, MD, MS, FAAP; Chief Editor: Luis O Rohena, MD, MS, FAAP, FACMG 



Thanatophoric dysplasia (TD) is the most common form of skeletal dysplasia known to be lethal in the neonatal period. The term thanatophoric derives from the Greek word thanatophorus, which means "death bringing" or "death bearing." Salient phenotypic features of TD include macrocephaly, narrow bell-shaped thorax with shortened ribs, normal trunk length, and severe shortening of the limbs. See the image below.

Infant with thanatophoric dysplasia. Note short-li Infant with thanatophoric dysplasia. Note short-limbed dysplasia, large head, short neck, narrow thorax, short and small fingers, and bowed extremities. Radiographs demonstrate thin flattened vertebrae, short ribs, small sacrosciatic notch, extremely short long tubular bones, and markedly short and curved femora (telephone receiver–like appearance).

TD is divided into 2 clinically defined subtypes: TD type I (TD-I or TD-1) and TD type II (TD-II or TD-2). The clinical subtypes of TD are defined by either a curved or straight appearance of the long bones. TD-I, the more common subtype, is characterized by a normal-shaped skull and curved long bones (shaped like old-fashioned telephone receivers); the femurs are most affected in TD-I. TD-II is associated with a cloverleaf-shaped skull and straight femurs. However, reported cases have cited clinical overlap between these subtypes.

Both TD-I and TD-II are part of a group of skeletal disorders associated with mutations within the Fibroblast Growth Factor Receptor 3 gene (FGFR3). TD-I and TD-II are due to an autosomal dominant point mutation, with the gene responsible, FGFR3, being mapped to the short arm of chromosome 4 (4p16.3). Penetrance of this mutation is 100%. Currently, all cases of TD are due to de novo mutations in FGFR3. Germline mosaicism has not been clearly documented but remains a theoretical possibility.[1, 2]


FGFR3 is part of the tyrosine kinase receptor family. Normally, FGFR3 is a negative regulator of bone growth. Point mutations within FGFR3 causing thanatophoric dysplasia (TD) initiate a gain in function by sending negative signals to the cartilage cells (chondrocytes). These signals occur when ligand binding within the chondrocytes induces receptor homodimerization and heterodimerization. Subsequently, activation of tyrosine kinase function potentiates many effects on cell growth and differentiation.

Researchers believe that mutations in FGFR3 lead to the formation of cysteine residues that create disulfide bonds between extracellular domains of mutant monomers. Activation of the homodimer receptor complex increases its stability and promotes translocation of the complex into the nucleus, where it may interfere with terminal chondrocyte differentiation. Hence, generalized disorganization of endochondral ossification at the bone growth plate occurs.

A study by Martin et al suggested another mechanism for FGFR3 interference with the growth plate. The investigators found evidence that constitutively active FGFR3 causes function loss in chondrocytic primary cilia by impacting cilia length, as well as by impeding the sorting of intraflagellar transport protein 20 and its trafficking to the cilia.[3]

TD-I is caused by several different mutations that affect either the extracellular or intracellular domains of FGFR3.[4] Two missense mutations, R248C and Y373C, account for about 80% of TD-I cases. The more common of these two TD-I point mutations, R248C (known as p.Arg248Cys), is a C→T pyrimidine nucleotide transition and impacts the extracellular domain of FGFR3.

To date, all patients with TD-II have a single point mutation, K650E (known as p.Lys650Glu), with an A→G purine nucleotide transition in the tyrosine kinase domain of FGFR3.



United States

Thanatophoric dysplasia (TD) has an incidence of 1 per 20,000 to 1 per 50,000 births.


Incidence in Spain is reported as 1 per 37,000 births.


Newborns with TD are stillborn or die shortly after birth. Death occurs usually within 48 hours and is due to severe respiratory insufficiency from a reduced thoracic capacity and hypoplastic lungs and/or respiratory failure due to brainstem compression. Survival into early childhood has been rarely reported.[5, 6]


Males and females are equally affected.


TD is lethal in neonates. Although extremely rare, survival beyond the neonatal period has been described in the medical literature.




Most cases of a severe fetal skeletal dysplasia can be diagnosed by prenatal ultrasonography during the second or third trimester of pregnancy. However, making the conclusive diagnosis of thanatophoric dysplasia (TD) using only this imaging tool can be difficult.

Key ultrasonography findings include the following:

  • Growth deficiency with limb length of less than 5% (by 20 weeks' gestation)

  • Macrocephaly

  • Ventriculomegaly 

  • Cloverleaf-shaped skull or kleeblattschädel (indicates TD-II, but also seen in TD-I)[7]

  • Well-ossified skull and spine

  • Platyspondyly of the vertebrae

  • Narrow chest cavity with shortened ribs

  • Micromelia

  • Bowed femurs with metaphyseal flaring, described as having a "telephone receiver' appearance (usually indicates TD-I)

  • Polyhydramnios


Salient phenotypic features in an affected newborn are cited below:

  • Severe growth deficiency with an average length of 40 cm (about 16 in) at term

  • Generalized hypotonia

  • Macrocephalic head with frontal bossing and large anterior fontanel

  • Cloverleaf-shaped skull due to premature closure of the cranial sutures

  • Flat facies with low nasal bridge and proptotic eyes

  • Narrow, bell-shaped thorax with short ribs

  • Normal trunk length

  • Protuberant abdomen

  • Micromelia (marked bilateral shortening of the limbs) with redundant skin folds

  • Brachydactyly with a trident hand configuration


Thanatophoric dysplasia (TD) is an autosomal dominant disorder that results from sporadic de novo point mutations in the FGFR3 gene. Sequence and targeted mutation DNA analyses of FGFR3 are available to assist with diagnosis when clinical concerns are present. Germline mosaicism has been suggested as another possible cause, but has not been clearly documented.

The following mutations that affect distinct domains of FGFR3 cause the TD subtypes, TD-I and TD-II:

  • TD-I: Amino acid substitutions in the extracellular domain of FGFR3 have resulted in TD-I. The more common mutation occurring in TD-I is R248C (p.Arg248Cys), which is confirmed in approximately 50% of patients.
  • TD-II: K650E (p.Lys650Glu) is the only reported gene mutation and is present in more than 99% of patients with TD-II.

TD-I occurs more often than TD-II. TD-I and TD-II do not share common FGFR3 gene mutations. 



Diagnostic Considerations

Diagnostic considerations include: 

  • Camptomelic dysplasia (CD)

  • Dyssegmental dysplasia, Silverman-Handmaker type (DDSH)

  • Platyspondylic lethal skeletal dysplasia (PLSD)

  • Rhizomelic chondrodysplasia punctata (RCDP)

  • Severe achondroplasia with developmental delay and acanthosis nigricans (SADDAN)

  • Short rib-polydactyly syndromes

Differential Diagnoses



Laboratory Studies

The following studies are indicated in suspected cases of thanatophoric dysplasia (TD):

  • Chromosome analysis (karyotype) to determine the presence or absence of chromosomal abnormalities.

  • DNA molecular testing for FGFR3 using targeted and sequence mutation analyses.

A study published in 2015 by Chitty et al suggested that next-generation sequencing (NGS) is more sensitive than polymerase chain reaction assay and restriction enzyme digest (PCR-RED) in the prenatal diagnostic screening for monogenic disorders, including thanatophoric dysplasia and achondroplasia. In the study, which used cell-free DNA from maternal blood, NGS and PCR-RED were performed to aid in the prenatal diagnosis of thanatophoric dysplasia and achondroplasia, with NGS being 96.2% accurate, compared with 88.6% for PCR-RED.[8]  

Imaging Studies

During the second or third semester of pregnancy, prenatal ultrasonography and CT scan assessments may be diagnostically helpful, as follows[9, 10, 11] :

  • Two-dimensional (2D) ultrasonography reveals polyhydramnios, growth deficiency, ventriculomegaly, a narrow thorax, flattened vertebrae and micromelia
  • Three-dimensional (3D) ultrasonography may reveal the fetal face, scapular anomalies, and chest hypoplasia better than 2D ultrasonography
  • A study published in 2014 by Wang et al indicated that the prenatal identification of temporal lobe dysplasia by ultrasonography may aid in the identification of thanatophoric dysplasia; the study found that out of 24 cases of thanatophoric dysplasia, 16 (67%) demonstrated ultrasonographic evidence of temporal lobe dysplasia [12]
  • Prenatal 3D CT scanning may complement ultrasonographic findings in cases in which fetal skeletal dysplasia is suspected, but no specific diagnosis can be made using ultrasonography alone; further studies on clinical performance and risk-benefit analysis are needed before 3D CT scanning is incorporated into standard practice guidelines [13]

Postnatal radiography and other imaging studies (CT, MRI) may reveal the following:

  • Enlarged skull and a small foramen magnum with potential evidence of brain stem compression
  • CNS abnormalities such as hydrocephalus, brainstem hypoplasia, temporal lobe malformations, neuronal migration abnormalities
  • Flattened vertebral bodies (platyspondyly) with wide intervertebral spacing
  • Rhizomelic shortening and irregular metaphyses of the long bones and "telephone receiver–shaped" bowed femurs

Histologic Findings

Histologic evaluation of long bone structure in thanatophoric dysplasia shows disruption of endochondral ossification but not of periosteal ossification.



Medical Care

Inpatient care is necessary for newborns diagnosed with thanatophoric dysplasia. If intubation is performed to treat respiratory distress, admission to a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) is required. If treatment intervention is deferred, palliative care is essential to keep the infant warm, comfortable, and nourished.


See the list below:

  • Neonatologist

  • Pediatric pulmonologist

  • Pediatric neurologist

  • Pediatric radiologist

  • Geneticist and genetic counselor

  • Social work and psychological support services



Medication Summary

See the list below:

  • Currently, drug therapy is not part of the treatment plan.

  • Medications may be indicated to treat concurrent medical conditions associated with thanatophoric dysplasia.



Further Outpatient Care

Outpatient care is indicated only in cases of long-term survival.

Further Inpatient Care

Admit patients born with thanatophoric dysplasia to the NICU if survival beyond the immediate newborn period seems possible.


Transfer to a long-term care facility or to hospice palliative care may be required for those affected infants in whom survival is prolonged.


Complications can include the following:

  • Severe growth and developmental delay

  • Severe neurological impairment - Hydrocephalus, seizure disorder

  • Marked respiratory insufficiency - Ventilator dependency

  • Auditory impairment

  • Joint contractures/Joint hypermobility


Thanatophoric dysplasia is usually lethal within the first few days of life. Death is due to respiratory failure caused by marked respiratory insufficiency from reduced thoracic capacity and hypoplastic lungs and/or brainstem compression.

Rare survival into early childhood has been reported in a 3.7-year-old female and a 4.7-year-old male.[14]

Patient Education

Prenatally, if a fetus is diagnosed with thanatophoric dysplasia, options to discontinue or continue the pregnancy must be discussed with the parents by medical professionals.

If the pregnancy has proceeded beyond the gestational time during which a therapeutic abortion can safely be performed, discuss interventional and palliative medical approaches with the parents to enable planning for when the infant is born.

Genetic counseling can be used to discuss concerns with future family planning.

Resources for patients and caregivers are listed below:

  • International Skeletal Dysplasia Registry - Phone: 1-800-233-2771

  • Little People of America Inc - Phone: 1-888-LPA-2001, 1-714-368-3689

  • The Magic Foundation - Phone: 1-708-383-0808, 1-800-3-MAGIC-3

Further resources are available here.