Plasma fluorescence scanning and fecal porphyrin analysis for the diagnosis of variegate porphyria: precise determination of sensitivity and specificity with detection of protoporphyrinogen oxidase mutations as a reference standard

Clin Chem. 2004 May;50(5):915-23. doi: 10.1373/clinchem.2003.025213. Epub 2004 Feb 19.


Background: Variegate porphyria (VP) is the autosomal dominant disorder associated with deficiency of the enzyme protoporphyrinogen oxidase (PPOX). Plasma fluorescence scanning has been reported to be a more sensitive test for VP than traditional fecal chromatography. Previous comparisons of these techniques predated identification of the PPOX gene. We assessed these techniques in a large group of patients characterized for VP at the DNA level.

Methods: We evaluated all patients for whom the genotype and a plasma scan or fecal porphyrin result were available. Mutations were detected by restriction digest analysis. Plasma fluorescence scanning was conducted according to published methods. Fecal porphyrins were identified and quantified by thin-layer chromatography.

Results: Plasma fluorescence scanning was assessed in 679 patients (205 with VP who were carriers of a PPOX mutation, either with disease symptoms or asymptomatic) and fecal analysis in 473 (190 with VP). Sensitivity and specificity of both tests were higher in adults than in children and higher for adults with disease symptoms than for asymptomatic carriers. In a direct comparison in 168 adults (73 with VP), plasma scanning was significantly more sensitive than fecal porphyrin analysis [sensitivity, 0.96 (95% confidence interval, 0.89-0.99) vs 0.77 (0.66-0.85)]. Fecal coproporphyrin [area under the curve, 0.87 (0.83-0.90)] was a better predictor of VP than protoporphyrin [0.80 (0.76-0.84)].

Conclusions: Plasma scanning is a more sensitive and specific test for VP than fecal porphyrin analysis. Neither test is sensitive in children, and both are less sensitive in asymptomatic carriers than in symptomatic cases. DNA analysis therefore remains the preferred method for the identification of carriers, particularly in children.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Child
  • Child, Preschool
  • Feces / chemistry*
  • Flavoproteins
  • Fluorescence
  • Genotype
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Middle Aged
  • Mitochondrial Proteins
  • Mutation
  • Oxidoreductases Acting on CH-CH Group Donors / genetics*
  • Porphyrias, Hepatic / blood*
  • Porphyrias, Hepatic / diagnosis*
  • Porphyrins / analysis*
  • Protoporphyrinogen Oxidase
  • Reference Standards
  • Sensitivity and Specificity


  • Flavoproteins
  • Mitochondrial Proteins
  • Porphyrins
  • Oxidoreductases Acting on CH-CH Group Donors
  • PPOX protein, human
  • Protoporphyrinogen Oxidase