Alternative pathway therapy for urea cycle disorders: twenty years later

J Pediatr. 2001 Jan;138(1 Suppl):S46-54; discussion S54-5. doi: 10.1067/mpd.2001.111836.


Alternative pathway therapy is currently an accepted treatment approach for inborn errors of the urea cycle. This involves the long-term use of oral sodium phenylbutyrate, arginine supplements, or both, depending on the specific enzyme deficiency, and treatment of acute hyperammonemic crises with intravenous sodium benzoate/sodium phenylacetate plus arginine. A review of 20 years of experience with this approach illustrates the strengths and limitations of this treatment. It has clearly decreased the mortality and morbidity from these disorders, but they remain unacceptably high. The medications are generally well tolerated, but severe accidental overdosage has been reported because of the infrequent use of the medication. There is also a difference in their metabolism between newborns and older children that must be addressed in determining dosage. To avoid these complications it is recommended that drug levels in blood be monitored routinely and that very specific treatment protocols and oversight be followed to avoid overdoses. Finally, it must be acknowledged that alternative pathway therapy has limited effectiveness in preventing hyperammonemia and must be combined with effective dietary management. Therefore in children with neonatal-onset disease or in those with very poor metabolic control, liver transplantation should be considered. There should also be the continued search for innovative therapies that may offer a more permanent and complete correction, such as gene therapy.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Amino Acid Metabolism, Inborn Errors / therapy*
  • Animals
  • Arginine / therapeutic use*
  • Humans
  • Hyperammonemia / drug therapy
  • Hyperammonemia / etiology
  • Phenylacetates / therapeutic use
  • Phenylbutyrates / therapeutic use
  • Sodium Benzoate / therapeutic use
  • Urea / metabolism*


  • Phenylacetates
  • Phenylbutyrates
  • Urea
  • Arginine
  • phenylacetic acid
  • Sodium Benzoate