Adult-onset ornithine transcarbamylase (OTC) deficiency unmasked by the Atkins' diet

J Hepatol. 2010 Feb;52(2):292-5. doi: 10.1016/j.jhep.2009.11.014. Epub 2009 Nov 24.


Background & aims: Late-onset symptoms of urea-cycle disorder may lead to a life-threatening disease which is often undetected. We report the clinical and metabolic manifestations of acute hyperammonemic encephalopathy in a 47-year-old asymptomatic man with ornithine transcarbamylase (OTC) deficiency. The hyperammonemic encephalopathy was unmasked by a high-protein Atkins diet.

Methods: Genetic analysis of the patient's family, 89 unrelated Ashkenazi Jewish and 50 unrelated Europeans subjects was performed using polymerase chain reaction amplification and DNA sequencing of the OTC gene.

Results: Treatment with hemodialysis, provision of adequate calories to prevent catabolism, and protein elimination for 24h followed by protein restriction and ammonia scavenging medications effectively lowered the patient's plasma ammonia level and resulted in full recovery. Genetic analysis of the OTC gene revealed a novel hemizygous missense mutation in exon 5 (c.477T>G), leading to an isoleucine-to-methionine substitution in codon 159 (Ile159Met). Further genetic analysis of the patient's family yielded the mutation in many of them, although findings were negative in 89 unrelated Ashkenazi Jewish and 50 unrelated Europeans subjects.

Conclusions: This is the first reported case of an adult urea-cycle defect unmasked by the Atkins diet. Measurements of serum ammonia level must be part of the basic work-up in all patients presenting with encephalopathy of unknown origin even in the absence of liver dysfunction. Awareness of this important association can contribute to prompt diagnosis and life-saving treatment. Correct diagnosis is also important to prevent future recurrences and to provide genetic counselling for family members.

Publication types

  • Case Reports

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Age of Onset
  • Amino Acid Substitution
  • Brain Diseases, Metabolic / etiology
  • Diet, Carbohydrate-Restricted / adverse effects*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Hyperammonemia / etiology
  • Jews / genetics
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Mutation, Missense
  • Ornithine Carbamoyltransferase / genetics
  • Ornithine Carbamoyltransferase Deficiency Disease / diagnosis*
  • Ornithine Carbamoyltransferase Deficiency Disease / enzymology
  • Ornithine Carbamoyltransferase Deficiency Disease / genetics
  • Pedigree


  • Ornithine Carbamoyltransferase