Diagnostic tests for Niemann-Pick disease type C (NP-C): A critical review

Mol Genet Metab. 2016 Aug;118(4):244-54. doi: 10.1016/j.ymgme.2016.06.004. Epub 2016 Jun 7.


Niemann-Pick disease type C (NP-C) is a neurovisceral lysosomal cholesterol trafficking and lipid storage disorder caused by mutations in one of the two genes, NPC1 or NPC2. Diagnosis has often been a difficult task, due to the wide range in age of onset of NP-C and clinical presentation of the disease, combined with the complexity of the cell biology (filipin) laboratory testing, even in combination with genetic testing. This has led to substantial delays in diagnosis, largely depending on the access to specialist centres and the level of knowledge about NP-C of the physician in the area. In recent years, advances in mass spectrometry has allowed identification of several sensitive plasma biomarkers elevated in NP-C (e.g. cholestane-3β,5α,6β-triol, lysosphingomyelin isoforms and bile acid metabolites), which, together with the concomitant progress in molecular genetic technology, have greatly impacted the strategy of laboratory testing. Specificity of the biomarkers is currently under investigation and other pathologies are being found to also result in elevations. Molecular genetic testing also has its limitations, notably with unidentified mutations and the classification of new variants. This review is intended to increase awareness on the currently available approaches to laboratory diagnosis of NP-C, to provide an up to date, comprehensive and critical evaluation of the various techniques (cell biology, biochemical biomarkers and molecular genetics), and to briefly discuss ongoing/future developments. The use of current tests in proper combination enables a rapid and correct diagnosis in a large majority of cases. However, even with recent progress, definitive diagnosis remains challenging in some patients, for whom combined genetic/biochemical/cytochemical markers do not provide a clear answer. Expertise and reference laboratories thus remain essential, and further work is still required to fulfill unmet needs.

Keywords: Filipin; Lysosphingomyelin; NPC1 gene; NPC2 gene; Niemann-Pick disease type C; Oxysterol.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Age of Onset
  • Bile Acids and Salts / blood
  • Biomarkers / blood*
  • Carrier Proteins / genetics*
  • Cholestanes / blood
  • Genetic Testing
  • Glycoproteins / genetics*
  • Humans
  • Intracellular Signaling Peptides and Proteins
  • Membrane Glycoproteins / genetics*
  • Niemann-Pick C1 Protein
  • Niemann-Pick Disease, Type C / blood
  • Niemann-Pick Disease, Type C / genetics*
  • Niemann-Pick Disease, Type C / physiopathology
  • Phosphorylcholine / analogs & derivatives
  • Phosphorylcholine / blood
  • Sphingosine / analogs & derivatives
  • Sphingosine / blood
  • Vesicular Transport Proteins


  • Bile Acids and Salts
  • Biomarkers
  • Carrier Proteins
  • Cholestanes
  • Glycoproteins
  • Intracellular Signaling Peptides and Proteins
  • Membrane Glycoproteins
  • NPC1 protein, human
  • NPC2 protein, human
  • Niemann-Pick C1 Protein
  • Vesicular Transport Proteins
  • sphingosine phosphorylcholine
  • Phosphorylcholine
  • Sphingosine