Phenylbutyrate improves nitrogen disposal via an alternative pathway without eliciting an increase in protein breakdown and catabolism in control and ornithine transcarbamylase-deficient patients

Am J Clin Nutr. 2011 Jun;93(6):1248-54. doi: 10.3945/ajcn.110.009043. Epub 2011 Apr 13.


Background: Phenylbutyrate is a drug used in patients with urea cycle disorder to elicit alternative pathways for nitrogen disposal. However, phenylbutyrate administration decreases plasma branched-chain amino acid (BCAA) concentrations, and previous research suggests that phenylbutyrate administration may increase leucine oxidation, which would indicate increased protein degradation and net protein loss.

Objective: We investigated the effects of phenylbutyrate administration on whole-body protein metabolism, glutamine, leucine, and urea kinetics in healthy and ornithine transcarbamylase-deficient (OTCD) subjects and the possible benefits of BCAA supplementation during phenylbutyrate therapy.

Design: Seven healthy control and 7 partial-OTCD subjects received either phenylbutyrate or no treatment in a crossover design. In addition, the partial-OTCD and 3 null-OTCD subjects received phenylbutyrate and phenylbutyrate plus BCAA supplementation. A multitracer protocol was used to determine the whole-body fluxes of urea and amino acids of interest.

Results: Phenylbutyrate administration reduced ureagenesis by ≈15% without affecting the fluxes of leucine, tyrosine, phenylalanine, or glutamine and the oxidation of leucine or phenylalanine. The transfer of (15)N from glutamine to urea was reduced by 35%. However, a reduction in plasma concentrations of BCAAs due to phenylbutyrate treatment was observed. BCAA supplementation did not alter the respective baseline fluxes.

Conclusions: Prolonged phenylbutyrate administration reduced ureagenesis and the transfer of (15)N from glutamine to urea without parallel reductions in glutamine flux and concentration. There were no changes in total-body protein breakdown and amino acid catabolism, which suggests that phenylbutyrate can be used to dispose of nitrogen effectively without adverse effects on body protein economy.

Publication types

  • Controlled Clinical Trial
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Amino Acids / metabolism
  • Amino Acids / pharmacology
  • Amino Acids, Branched-Chain / blood*
  • Amino Acids, Branched-Chain / pharmacology
  • Child
  • Female
  • Glutamine / metabolism*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Metabolic Networks and Pathways / drug effects
  • Middle Aged
  • Nitrogen / metabolism*
  • Ornithine Carbamoyltransferase Deficiency Disease / drug therapy
  • Ornithine Carbamoyltransferase Deficiency Disease / metabolism*
  • Phenylbutyrates / pharmacology*
  • Phenylbutyrates / therapeutic use
  • Proteins / metabolism*
  • Urea / metabolism*
  • Young Adult


  • Amino Acids
  • Amino Acids, Branched-Chain
  • Phenylbutyrates
  • Proteins
  • Glutamine
  • Urea
  • Nitrogen