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The porphyrias are a group of inherited disorders resulting from enzyme defects in the heme biosynthetic pathway. Depending on the specific enzyme involved, various porphyrins and their precursors accumulate in different specimen types. The patterns of porphyrin accumulation in erythrocytes and plasma and excretion of the heme precursors in urine and feces allow for the detection and differentiation of the porphyrias.
The porphyrias are typically classified as erythropoietic or hepatic based upon the primary site of the enzyme defect. In addition, hepatic porphyrias can be further classified as chronic or acute, based on their clinical presentation.
The primary acute hepatic porphyrias, acute intermittent porphyria (AIP), hereditary coproporphyria (HCP), and variegate porphyria (VP), are associated with neurovisceral symptoms which typically onset during puberty or later. Common symptoms include severe abdominal pain, peripheral neuropathy, and psychiatric symptoms. A broad range of medications (including barbiturates and sulfa drugs), alcohol, infection, starvation, heavy metals, and hormonal changes may precipitate crises. Photosensitivity is not associated with AIP, but may be present in HCP and VP.
Cutaneous photosensitivity is associated with the chronic hepatic porphyria porphyria cutanea tarda (PCT), and the erythropoietic porphyrias including erythropoietic protoporphyria (EPP), X-linked dominant protoporphyria (XLDPP), and congenital erythropoietic porphyria (CEP). Although genetic in nature, environmental factors may exacerbate symptoms, significantly impacting the severity and course of disease.
CEP is an erythropoietic porphyria caused by uroporphyrinogen III synthase deficiency. Symptoms typically present in early infancy with red-brown staining of diapers, severe cutaneous photosensitivity with fluid-filled bullae and vesicles. Other common symptoms may include thickening of the skin, hypo- and hyperpigmentation, hypertrichosis, cutaneous scarring, and deformities of the fingers, eyelids, lips, nose, and ears. A few milder adult-onset cases have been documented as well as cases that are secondary to myeloid malignancies.
PCT is the most common form of porphyria and can be either sporadic (acquired) or inherited in an autosomal dominant manner. The most prominent clinical characteristics are cutaneous photosensitivity and scarring on sun-exposed surfaces. Patients experience chronic blistering lesions resulting from mild trauma to sun-exposed areas. These fluid-filled vesicles rupture easily, become crusted, and heal slowly. Secondary infections can cause areas of hypo- or hyperpigmentation or sclerodermatous changes and alopecia may develop at sites of repeated skin damage. Liver disease is common in patients with PCT as evidenced by abnormal liver function tests with 30% to 40% of patients developing cirrhosis. In addition, there is an increased risk of hepatocellular carcinoma.
Hepatoerythropoietic porphyria (HEP) occurs when an individual inherits PCT from both parents. Patients exhibit a similar clinical presentation to what is seen in CEP.
Clinical presentation of EPP and XLDPP is identical with onset of symptoms typically occurring in childhood. Cutaneous photosensitivity in sun-exposed areas of the skin generally worsens in the spring and summer months. Common symptoms may include itching, edema, erythema, stinging or burning sensations, and occasionally scarring of the skin in sun-exposed areas.
Plasma porphyrins are most appropriate for monitoring treatment of PCT. Although analysis in plasma is not recommended for diagnosis, increases in plasma porphyrin concentrations are observed in the cutaneous porphyrias and may be elevated during acute episodes of AIP, VP, and HCP. In addition, persons in chronic renal failure who develop bullous dermatosis similar to that associated with PCT may have increased plasma porphyrins.
The workup of patients with a suspected porphyria is most effective when following a stepwise approach. See Porphyria (Acute) Testing Algorithm and Porphyria (Cutaneous) Testing Algorithm in Special Instructions or contact Mayo Medical Laboratories to discuss testing strategies.
Monitoring treatment of patients with porphyria cutanea tarda
Abnormal results are reported with a detailed interpretation which may include an overview of the results and their significance, a correlation to available clinical information provided with the specimen, differential diagnosis, recommendations for additional testing when indicated and available, and a phone number to reach one of the laboratory directors in case the referring physician has additional questions.
Plasma porphyrins, especially protoporphyrin are extremely sensitive to light and may degrade to normal levels if not handled properly. Send specimen frozen in amber vial (Supply T192) to protect from light.
< or =1.0 mcg/dL
1. Tortorelli S, Kloke K, Raymond K: Chapter 15: Disorders of porphyrin metabolism. In Biochemical and Molecular Basis of Pediatric Disease. Fourth edition. Edited by DJ Dietzen, MJ Bennett, ECC Wong. AACC Press, 2010, pp 307-324
2. Anderson KE, Sassa S, Bishop DF, Desnick RJ: Disorders of heme biosynthesis: X-linked sideroblastic anemia and the porphyrias. In The Metabolic Basis of Inherited Disease. Edited by D Valle. AL Beaudet, B Vogelstein, et. al. New York, McGraw-Hill Book Company. Available at URL: www.ommbid.com. Accessed 01/21/2015