Blood cell respiration rates and mtDNA copy number: A promising tool for the diagnosis of mitochondrial disease

Mitochondrion. 2021 Nov;61:31-43. doi: 10.1016/j.mito.2021.09.004. Epub 2021 Sep 16.


Human mitochondrial diseases are a group of heterogeneous diseases caused by defects in oxidative phosphorylation, due to mutations in mitochondrial (mtDNA) or nuclear DNA. The diagnosis of mitochondrial disease is challenging since mutations in multiple genes can affect mitochondrial function, there is considerable clinical variability and a poor correlation between genotype and phenotype. Herein we assessed mitochondrial function in peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMCs) and platelets from volunteers without known metabolic pathology and patients with mitochondrial disease. Oxygen consumption rates were evaluated and respiratory parameters indicative of mitochondrial function were obtained. A negative correlation between age and respiratory parameters of PBMCs from control individuals was observed. Surprisingly, respiratory parameters of PBMCs normalized by cell number were similar in patients and young controls. Considering possible compensatory mechanisms, mtDNA copy number in PBMCs was quantified and an increase was found in patients with respect to controls. Hence, respiratory parameters normalized by mtDNA copy number were determined, and in these conditions a decrease in maximum respiration rate and spare respiratory capacity was observed in patients relative to control individuals. In platelets no decay was seen in mitochondrial function with age, while a reduction in basal, ATP-independent and ATP-dependent respiration normalized by cell number was detected in patients compared to control subjects. In summary, our results offer promising perspectives regarding the assessment of mitochondrial function in blood cells for the diagnosis of mitochondrial disease, minimizing the need for invasive procedures such as muscle biopsies, and for following disease progression and response to treatments.

Keywords: Aging; Bioenergetics; Mitochondrial disease; PBMC; Platelets; mtDNA.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Child
  • Child, Preschool
  • DNA Copy Number Variations*
  • DNA, Mitochondrial / genetics*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Leukocytes, Mononuclear / physiology*
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Mitochondrial Diseases / diagnosis*
  • Oxygen Consumption / physiology*
  • Young Adult


  • DNA, Mitochondrial