The acute porphyrias are a group of disorders which result from inherited defects in the enzymes of the heme biosynthetic pathway. Affected patients are prone to potentially fatal acute attacks. These attacks are frequently precipitated by exposure to commonly used drugs. Correctly identifying the safety or otherwise of drugs in porphyria is therefore important. In this review we describe how clinical experience and the findings of experimental systems using whole animal or cell culture models have been interpreted to determine porphyrogenicity, that is the potential of a drug to induce an acute attack in a patient carrying a gene for acute porphyria. It is now well established that induction of delta-aminolevulinic acid synthase, the rate controlling enzyme of the heme biosynthetic pathway, is fundamental to porphyrogenicity, and that drug-induced hepatic heme depletion via induction or suicidal inactivation of cytochrome P450 is central to this process. The process is now sufficiently well understood that prediction of porphyrogenicity from structural and functional information alone would appear to be justified.
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