Published in Clinical Pathology
Thursday, 03 August 2017 18:15
Porphyrias (from Greek porphura meaning purple pigment; the name is probably derived from purple discoloration of some body fluids during the attack) are a heterogeneous group of rare disorders resulting from disturbance in the heme biosynthetic pathway leading to the abnormal accumulations of red and purple pigments called as porphyrins in the body. Heme, a component of hemoglobin, is synthesized through various steps as shown in Figure 817.1. Each of the steps is catalyzed by a separate enzyme; if any of these steps fails (due to hereditary or acquired cause), precursors of heme (porphyrin intermediates) accumulate in blood, get deposited in skin and other organs, and excreted in urine and feces. Depending on the site of defect, different types of porphyrias are described with varying clinical features, severity, and the nature of accumulated porphyrin.
Porphyria has been offered as a possible explanation for the medieval tales of vampires and werewolves; this is because of the number of similarities between the behavior of persons suffering from porphyria and the folklore (avoiding sunlight, mutilation of skin on exposure to sunlight, red teeth, psychiatric disturbance, and drinking of blood to obtain heme).
Porphyrias are often missed or wrongly diagnosed as many of them are not associated with definite physical findings, screening tests may yield false-negative results, diagnostic criteria are poorly defined and mild disorders produce an enzyme assay result within ‘normal’ range.
Heme is mainly required in bone marrow (for hemoglobin synthesis) and in liver (for cytochromes). Therefore, porphyrias are divided into erythropoietic and hepatic types, depending on the site of expression of disease. Hepatic porphyrias mainly affect the nervous system, while erythropoietic porphyrias primarily affect the skin. Porphyrias are also classified into acute and nonacute (or cutaneous) types depending on clinical presentation (Table 817.1).
Table 817.1 Various classification schemes for porphyrias
Classification based on predominant clinical manifestations
Classification based on site of expression of disease
Classification based on mode of clinical presentation
1. Acute intermittent porphyria
1. ALA-dehydratase porphyria
1. ALA-dehydratase porphyria (Plumboporphyria)
2. ALA-dehydratase porphyria (Plumboporphyria)
2. Acute intermittent porphyria
2. Acute intermittent porphyria
Cutaneous (Photosensitivity)
3. Hereditary coproporphyria
3. Hereditary coproporphyria
1. Congenital erythropoietic porphyria
4. Variegate porphyria
4. Variegate porphyria
2. Porphyria cutanea tarda
Erythropoietic porphyria
Non-acute (cutaneous)
3. Erythropoietic protoporphyria
1. Congenital erythropoietic porphyria
1. Porphyria cutanea tarda
Mixed (Neuropsychiatric and cutaneous)
2. Erythropoietic protoporphyria
2. Congenital erythropoietic porphyria
1. Hereditary coproporphyria
3. Erythropoietic protoporphyria
2. Variegate porphyria
1. Porphyria cutanea tarda
Inheritance of porphyrias may be autosomal dominant or recessive. Most acute porphyrias are inherited in an autosomal dominant manner (i.e. inheritance of one abnormal copy of gene). Therefore, the activity of the deficient enzyme is 50%. When the level of heme falls in the liver due to some cause, activity of ALA synthase is stimulated leading to increase in the levels of heme precursors up to the point of enzyme defect. Increased levels of heme precursors cause symptoms of acute porphyria. When the heme level returns back to normal, symptoms subside.
Accumulation of porphyrin precursors can occur in lead poisoning due to inhibition of enzyme aminolevulinic acid dehydratase in heme biosynthetic pathway. This can mimick acute intermittent porphyria.
Clinical features of porphyrias are variable and depend on type. Acute porphyrias present with symptoms like acute and severe abdominal pain/vomiting/constipation, chest pain, emotional and mental disorders, seizures, hypertension, tachycardia, sensory loss, and muscle weakness. Cutaneous porphyrias present with photosensitivity (redness and blistering of skin on exposure to sunlight), itching, necrosis of skin and gums, and increased hair growth over the temples (Table 817.2).
Table 817.2 Clinical characteristics of porphyrias
Porphyria Deficient enzyme Clinical features Inheritance Initial test
1. Acute intermittent porphyria (AIP)* PBG deaminase Acute neurovisceral attacks; triggering factors+ (e.g. drugs, diet restriction) Autosomal dominant Urinary PBG; urine becomes brown, red, or black on standing
2. Variegate porphyria Protoporphyrinogen oxidase Acute neurovisceral attacks + skin fragility, bullae Autosomal dominant Urinary PBG
3. Hereditary coproporphyria Coproporphyrinogen oxidase Acute neurovisceral attacks + skin fragility, bullae Autosomal dominant Urinary PBG
4. Congenital erythropoietic porphyria Uroporphyrinogen cosynthase Onset in infancy; skin fragility, bullae; extreme photosensitivity with mutilation; red teeth and urine (pink red urinestaining of diapers) Autosomal recessive Urinary/fecal total porphyrins; ultraviolet fluorescence of urine, feces, and bones
5. Porphyria cutanea tarda* Uroporphyrinogen decarboxylase Skin fragility, bullae Autosomal dominant (some cases) Urinary/fecal total porphyrins
6. Erythropoietic protoporphyria* Ferrochelatase Acute photosensitivity Autosomal dominant Free erythrocyte protoporphyrin
Disorders marked with * are the three most common porphyrias. PBG: Porphobilinogen
Symptoms can be triggered by drugs (barbiturates, oral contraceptives, diazepam, phenytoin, carbamazepine, methyldopa, sulfonamides, chloramphenicol, and antihistamines), emotional or physical stress, infection, dieting, fasting, substance abuse, premenstrual period, smoking, and alcohol. Autosomal dominant porphyrias include acute intermittent porphyria, variegate porphyria, porphyria cutanea tarda, erythropoietic protoporphyria (most cases), and hereditary coproporphyria. Autosomal recessive porphyrias include: congenital erythropoietic porphyria, erythropoietic protoporphyria (few cases), and ALAdehydratase porphyria (plumboporphyria).
Porphyria can be diagnosed through tests done on blood, urine, and feces during symptomatic period. Timely and accurate diagnosis is required for effective management of porphyrias. Due to the variability and a broad range of clinical features, porphyrias are included under differential diagnosis of many conditions. All routine hospital laboratories usually have facilities for initial investigations in suspected cases of porphyrias; laboratory tests for identification of specific type of porphyrias are available in specialized laboratories.
In suspected acute porphyrias (acute neurovisceral attack), a fresh randomly collected urine sample (10-20 ml) should be submitted for detection of excessive urinary excretion of porphobilinogen (PBG) (see Figure 817.2). In AIP, urine becomes red or brown on standing (see Figure 817.3). In suspected cases of cutaneous porphyrias (acute photosensitivity without skin fragility), free erythrocyte protporphyrin or FEP in EDTA blood (for diagnosis of erythrocytic protoporphyria) and for all other cutaneous porphyrias (skin fragility and bullae), examination of fresh, random urine (10-20 ml) and either feces (5-10 g) or plasma for excess porphyrins are necessary (see Figure 817.4 and Table 817.2).
Figure 817.2 Evaluation of acute neurovisceral porphyria
 Figure 817.2 Evaluation of acute neurovisceral porphyria
Figure 817.3 Red coloration of urine on standing in acute intermittent porphyria
Figure 817.3 Red coloration of urine on standing in acute intermittent porphyria
Figure 817.4 Evaluation of cutaneous porphyrias
Figure 817.4 Evaluation of cutaneous porphyrias
Apart from diagnosis, the detection of excretion of a particular heme intermediate in urine or feces can help in detecting site of defect in porphyria. Heme precursors up to coproporphyrinogen III are water-soluble and thus can be detected in urine. Protoporphyrinogen and Protoporphyrin are insoluble in water and are excreted in bile and can be detected in feces. All samples should be protected from light.
Samples required are
  1. 10-20 ml of fresh random urine sample without any preservative;
  2. 5-10 g wet weight of fecal sample, and
  3. blood anticoagulated with EDTA.
Test for Porphobilinogen in Urine
Ehrlich’s aldehyde test is done for detection of PBG. Ehrlich’s reagent (p-dimethylaminobenzaldehyde) reacts with PBG in urine to produce a red color. The red product has an absorption spectrum with a peak at 553 nm and a shoulder at 540 nm. Since both urobilinogen and porphobilinogen produce similar reaction, further testing is required to distinguish between the two. Urobilinogen can be removed by solvent extraction. (See Watson-Schwartz test). Levels of PBG may be normal or near normal in between attacks. Therefore, samples should be tested during an attack to avoid false-negative results.
Test for Total Porphyrins in Urine
Total porphyrins can be detected in acidified urine sample by spectrophotometry (Porphyrins have an intense absorbance peak around 400 nm). Semiquantitative estimation of porphyrins is possible.
Test for Total Porphyrins in Feces
Total porphyrins in feces can be determined in acidic extract of fecal sample by spectrophotometry; it is necessary to first remove dietary chlorophyll (that also absorbs light around 400 nm) by diethyl ether extraction.
Tests for Porphyrins in Erythrocytes and Plasma
Visual examination for porphyrin fluorescence, and solvent fractionation and spectrophotometry have now been replaced by fluorometric methods.
Further Testing
If the initial testing for porphyria is positive, then concentrations of porphyrins should be estimated in urine, feces, and blood to arrive at specific diagnosis (Tables 817.3 and 817.4).
Table 817.3 Diagnostic patterns of concentrations of heme precursors in acute porphyrias
Porphyria Urine Feces
Acute intermittent porphyria PBG, Copro III
Variegate porphyria PBG, Copro III Proto IX
Hereditary coproporphyria PBG, Copro III Copro III
PBG: Porphobilinogen; Copro III: Coproporphyrinogen III; Proto IX: Protoporphyrin IX
Table 817.4 Diagnostic patterns of concentrations of heme precursors in cutaneous porphyrias
Porphyria Urine Feces Erythrocytes
Congenital erythropoietic porphyria Uro I, Copro I Copro I
Porphyria cutanea tarda Uroporphyrin Isocopro
Erythropoietic protoporphyria Protoporphyrin
Uro I: Uroporphyrinogen I; Copro I: Coproporphyrinogen I; Isocopro: Isocoproporphyrinogen
In latent porphyrias and in patients during remission, porphyrin levels may be normal; in such cases, enzymatic and DNA testing is necessary for diagnosis.
If porphyria is diagnosed, then it is necessary to investigate close family members for the disorder. Positive family members should be counseled regarding triggering factors.

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