Mutations in the Heme Exporter FLVCR1 Cause Sensory Neurodegeneration with Loss of Pain Perception

PLoS Genet. 2016 Dec 6;12(12):e1006461. doi: 10.1371/journal.pgen.1006461. eCollection 2016 Dec.


Pain is necessary to alert us to actual or potential tissue damage. Specialized nerve cells in the body periphery, so called nociceptors, are fundamental to mediate pain perception and humans without pain perception are at permanent risk for injuries, burns and mutilations. Pain insensitivity can be caused by sensory neurodegeneration which is a hallmark of hereditary sensory and autonomic neuropathies (HSANs). Although mutations in several genes were previously associated with sensory neurodegeneration, the etiology of many cases remains unknown. Using next generation sequencing in patients with congenital loss of pain perception, we here identify bi-allelic mutations in the FLVCR1 (Feline Leukemia Virus subgroup C Receptor 1) gene, which encodes a broadly expressed heme exporter. Different FLVCR1 isoforms control the size of the cytosolic heme pool required to sustain metabolic activity of different cell types. Mutations in FLVCR1 have previously been linked to vision impairment and posterior column ataxia in humans, but not to HSAN. Using fibroblasts and lymphoblastoid cell lines from patients with sensory neurodegeneration, we here show that the FLVCR1-mutations reduce heme export activity, enhance oxidative stress and increase sensitivity to programmed cell death. Our data link heme metabolism to sensory neuron maintenance and suggest that intracellular heme overload causes early-onset degeneration of pain-sensing neurons in humans.

MeSH terms

  • Apoptosis / genetics
  • Cell Line
  • Exome / genetics
  • Female
  • Fibroblasts / metabolism
  • Fibroblasts / pathology
  • Frameshift Mutation / genetics
  • Heme / genetics
  • Humans
  • Immunoprecipitation
  • Male
  • Membrane Transport Proteins / genetics*
  • Nerve Degeneration / genetics*
  • Nerve Degeneration / pathology
  • Nociceptors / metabolism
  • Nociceptors / pathology
  • Oxidative Stress / genetics*
  • Pain / genetics*
  • Pain / pathology
  • Primary Cell Culture
  • Receptors, Virus / genetics*
  • Sensory Receptor Cells / metabolism
  • Sensory Receptor Cells / pathology


  • FLVCR1 protein, human
  • Membrane Transport Proteins
  • Receptors, Virus
  • Heme

Grants and funding

This work was supported by Telethon (GEP13065) to D.C, and by a Heisenberg-Professorship by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG) to IK (KU1587/4-1). The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.