Acute Hepatic Porphyria

J Clin Transl Hepatol. 2015 Mar;3(1):17-26. doi: 10.14218/JCTH.2014.00039. Epub 2015 Mar 15.


The porphyrias comprise a set of diseases, each representing an individual defect in one of the eight enzymes mediating the pathway of heme synthesis. The diseases are genetically distinct but have in common the overproduction of heme precursors. In the case of the acute (neurologic) porphyrias, the cause of symptoms appears to be overproduction of a neurotoxic precursor. For the cutaneous porphyrias, it is photosensitizing porphyrins. Some types have both acute and cutaneous manifestations. The clinical presentation of acute porphyria consists of abdominal pain, nausea, and occasionally seizures. Only a small minority of those who carry a mutation for acute porphyria have pain attacks. The triggers for an acute attack encompass certain medications and severely decreased caloric intake. The propensity of females to acute attacks has been linked to internal changes in ovarian physiology. Symptoms are accompanied by large increases in delta-aminolevulinic acid and porphobilinogen in plasma and urine. Treatment of an acute attack centers initially on pain relief and elimination of inducing factors such as medications; glucose is administered to reverse the fasting state. The only specific treatment is administration of intravenous hemin. An important goal of treatment is preventing progression of the symptoms to a neurological crisis. Patients who progress despite hemin administration have undergone liver transplantation with complete resolution of symptoms. A current issue is the unavailability of a rapid test for urine porphobilinogen in the urgent-care setting.

Keywords: Delta-aminolevulinic acid; Porphobilinogen; Porphyria.

Publication types

  • Review