The porphyrias are disorders in which the body produces too much porphyrin and insufficient heme (an iron-containing nonprotein portion of the hemoglobin molecule). Porphyrin is a foundation structure for heme and certain enzymes. Excess porphyrins are excreted as waste in urine and stool. Overproduction and overexcretion of porphyrins causes low, unhealthy levels of heme and certain important enzymes, creating various physical symptoms.


Biosynthesis of heme is a multistep process that begins with simple molecules and ends with a large, complex heme molecule. Each step of the chemical pathway is directed by its own task-specific protein, called an enzyme. As a heme precursor molecule moves through each step, an enzyme modifies the precursor in some way. If a precursor molecule is not modified, it cannot proceed to the next step, causing a buildup of that specific precursor.

This situation is the main characteristic of the porphyrias. Owing to a defect in one of the enzymes of the heme biosynthesis pathway, protoporphyrins or porphyrins (heme precursors) are prevented from proceeding further along the pathway. These precursors accumulate at the stage of the enzyme defect, causing an array of physical symptoms in an affected child. Specific symptoms depend on the point at which heme biosynthesis is blocked and which precursors accumulate. In general, the porphyrias primarily affect the skin and the nervous system. Symptoms can be debilitating or life threatening in some cases. Porphyria is most commonly an inherited condition. It can also, however, be acquired after exposure to poisonous substances.


Heme is produced in several tissues in the body, but its primary biosynthesis sites are the liver and the bone marrow. Heme synthesis for immature red blood cells, namely the erythroblasts and the reticulocytes, occurs in the bone marrow.

Although production is concentrated in the liver and bone marrow, heme is utilized in various capacities in virtually every tissue in the body. In most cells, heme is a key building block in the construction of factors that oversee metabolism and transport of oxygen and energy. In the liver, heme is a component of several vital enzymes, particularly cytochrome P450. Cytochrome P450 is involved in the metabolism of chemicals, vitamins , fatty acids, and hormones; it is very important in transforming toxic substances into easily excretable materials. In immature red blood cells, heme is the featured component of hemoglobin. Hemoglobin is the red pigment that gives red blood cells their characteristic color and their essential ability to transport oxygen.

Heme biosynthesis

The heme molecule is composed of porphyrin and an iron atom. Much of the heme biosynthesis pathway is dedicated to constructing the porphyrin molecule. Porphyrin is a large molecule shaped like a four-leaf clover. An iron atom is placed at its center point in the last step of heme biosynthesis.

The production of heme may be compared to a factory assembly line. At the start of the line, raw materials are fed into the process. At specific points along the line, an addition or adjustment is made to further development. Once additions and adjustments are complete, the final product rolls off the end of the line.

The heme "assembly line" is an eight-step process, requiring eight different and properly functioning enzymes:

  1. delta-aminolevulinic acid synthase
  2. delta-aminolevulinic acid dehydratase
  3. porphobilogen deaminase
  4. uroporphyrinogen III cosynthase
  5. uroporphyrinogen decarboxylase
  6. coproporphyrinogen oxidase
  7. protoporphyrinogen oxidase
  8. ferrochelatase

The control of heme biosynthesis is complex. Various chemical signals can trigger increased or decreased production. These signals can affect the enzymes themselves or the production of these enzymes, starting at the genetic level. For example, one point at which heme biosynthesis may be controlled is at the first step. When heme levels are low, greater quantities of delta-aminolevulinic acid (ALA) synthase are produced. As a result, larger quantities of heme precursors are fed into the biosynthesis pathway to step up heme production.


Under normal circumstances, when heme concentrations are at an appropriate level, precursor production decreases. However, a glitch in the biosynthesis pathway—represented by a defective enzyme—means that heme biosynthesis does not reach completion. Because heme levels remain low, the synthesis pathway continues to churn out precursor molecules in an attempt to correct the heme deficit.

The net effect of this continued production is an abnormal accumulation of precursor molecules and development of some type of porphyria. Each type of porphyria corresponds with a specific enzyme defect and an accumulation of the associated precursor. Although there are eight steps in heme biosynthesis, there are only seven types of porphyrias; a defect in ALA synthase activity does not have a corresponding porphyria.

Enzymes involved in heme biosynthesis display subtle, tissue-specific variations; therefore, heme biosynthesis may be impeded in the liver, but normal in the immature red blood cells, or vice versa. Incidence of porphyria varies widely between types and occasionally by geographic location. Although certain porphyrias are more common than others, their greater frequency is only relative to other types. All porphyrias are considered to be rare disorders.

In the past, the porphyrias were divided into two general categories based on the location of the porphyrin production. Porphyrias affecting heme biosynthesis in the liver were referred to as hepatic porphyrias. Porphyrias that affect heme biosynthesis in immature red blood cells were referred to as erythropoietic porphyries. (Erythropoiesis is the process through which red blood cells are produced.) As of 2001, porphyrias are usually grouped into acute and non-acute types. Acute porphyrias produce severe attacks of pain and neurological effects. Non-acute porphyrias present as chronic diseases.

The acute porphyrias, and the heme biosynthesis steps at which enzyme defects occur, are:

  • ALA dehydratase deficiency porphyria (step 2). This porphyria type is very rare. The inheritance pattern appears to be autosomal recessive. In autosomal recessively inherited disorders, a child must inherit two defective genes, one from each parent. A parent with only one gene for an autosomal recessive disorder does not display symptoms of the disease.
  • Acute intermittent porphyria (step 3). Acute intermittent porphyria (AIP) is also known as Swedish porphyria, pyrroloporphyria, and intermittent acute porphyria. AIP is inherited as an autosomal dominant trait, which means that only one copy of the defective gene needs to be present for the disorder to occur. Simply inheriting this gene, however, does not necessarily mean that a child will develop the disease. Approximately five to 10 per 100,000 children in the United States carry a gene for AIP, but only 10 percent of these people, mostly teenage or older, ever develop symptoms of the disease.
  • Hereditary coproporphyria (step 6). Hereditary coproporphyria (HCP) is inherited in an autosomal dominant manner. As with all porphyrias, it is an uncommon ailment. By 1977, only 111 cases of HCP were recorded; in Denmark, the estimated incidence is two in one million people.
  • Variegate porphyria (step 7). Variegate porphyria (VP) is also known as porphyria variegata, protocoproporphyria, South African genetic porphyria, and Royal malady (supposedly King George III of England and Mary, Queen of Scots, suffered from VP). VP is inherited in an autosomal dominant manner and is especially prominent in South Africans of Dutch descent. Among that population, the incidence is approximately three in 1,000 persons. It is estimated that there are 10,000 cases of VP in South Africa. Interestingly, it appears that the affected South Africans are descendants of two Dutch settlers who came to South Africa in 1680. Among other populations, the incidence of VP is estimated to be one to two cases per 100,000 persons.

The non-acute porphyrias, and the steps of heme biosynthesis at which they occur, are:

  • Congenital erythropoietic porphyria (step 4). Congenital erythropoietic porphyria (CEP) is also called Gunther's disease, erythropoietic porphyria, congenital porphyria, congenital hematoporphyria, and erythropoietic uroporphyria. CEP is inherited in an autosomal recessive manner. It is a rare disease, estimated to affect fewer than one in one million people. Onset of dramatic symptoms usually occurs in infancy, but may hold off until adulthood.
  • Porphyria cutanea tarda (step 5). Porphyria cutanea tarda (PCT) is also called symptomatic porphyria, porphyria cutanea symptomatica, and idiosyncratic porphyria. PCT may be acquired, typically as a result of disease (especially hepatitis C), drug or alcohol use, or exposure to certain poisons. PCT may also be inherited as an autosomal dominant disorder, however most people remain latent—that is, symptoms never develop. PCT is the most common of the porphyrias, but the incidence of PCT is not well defined. However, PCT does not typically develop in children.
  • Hepatoerythopoietic porphyria (step 5). Hepatoerythopoietic porphyria (HEP) affects heme biosynthesis in both the liver and the bone marrow. HEP results from a defect in uroporphyrinogen decarboxylase activity (step 5), and is caused by defects in the same gene as PCT. Disease symptoms, however, strongly resemble congenital erythropoietic porphyria. HEP seems to be inherited in an autosomal recessive manner.
  • Erythropoietic protoporphyria (step 8). Also known as protoporphyria and erythrohepatic protoporphyria, erythropoietic protoporphyria (EPP) is more common than CEP; more than 300 cases have been reported. In these cases, onset of symptoms typically occurred in childhood.

Causes and symptoms

General characteristics

The underlying cause of all porphyrias is a defective enzyme important to the heme biosynthesis pathway. Porphyrias are inheritable conditions. In virtually all cases of porphyria, an inherited factor causes the enzyme's defect. An environmental trigger—such as diet, drugs, or sun exposure—may be necessary before any symptoms develop. In many cases, symptoms do not develop. These asymptomatic individuals may be completely unaware that they have a gene for porphyria.

All of the hepatic porphyrias—except porphyria cutanea tarda—follow a pattern of acute attacks separated by periods during which no symptoms are present. For this reason, this group is often referred to as the acute porphyrias. The erythropoietic porphyrias and porphyria cutanea tarda do not follow this pattern and are considered to be chronic conditions.

The specific symptoms of each porphyria vary based on which enzyme is affected and whether that enzyme occurs in the liver or in the bone marrow. The severity of symptoms can vary widely, even within the same type of porphyria. If the porphyria becomes symptomatic, the common factor between all types is an abnormal accumulation of protoporphyrins or porphyrin.

ALA dehydratase porphyria (ADP)

ADP is characterized by a deficiency of ALA dehydratase. ADP is caused by mutations in the delta-aminolevulinate dehydratase gene (ALAD) at 9q34. Being located at 9q34 means that it is on the long arm (q) of chromosome 9 in the 34 region. Of the few cases on record, the prominent symptoms are vomiting , pain in the abdomen, arms, and legs, and neuropathy. (Neuropathy refers to nerve damage that can cause pain, numbness , or paralysis.) The nerve damage associated with ADP could cause breathing impairment or lead to weakness or paralysis of the arms and legs.

Acute intermittent porphyria (AIP)

AIP is caused by a deficiency of porphobilinogen deaminase, which occurs due to mutations in the hydroxymethylbilane synthase gene (HMBS) located at 11q23.3. Symptoms of AIP usually do not occur unless a person with the deficiency encounters a trigger substance. Trigger substances can include hormones (for example oral contraceptives , menstruation , pregnancy), drugs, and dietary factors. Most people with this deficiency never develop symptoms.

Attacks occur after puberty and commonly feature severe abdominal pain, nausea , vomiting, and constipation . Muscle weakness and pain in the back, arms, and legs are also typical symptoms. During an attack, the urine is a deep reddish color. The central nervous system may also be involved. Possible psychological symptoms include hallucinations, confusion, seizures, and mood changes.

Congenital erythropoietic porphyria (CEP)

CEP is caused by a deficiency of uroporphyrinogen III cosynthase due to mutations in the uroporphyrinogen III cosynthase gene (UROS) located at 10q25.2-q26.3. Symptoms are often apparent in infancy and include reddish urine and possibly an enlarged spleen. The skin is unusually sensitive to light and blisters easily if exposed to sunlight. (Sunlight induces protoporphyrin changes in the plasma and skin. These altered protoporphyrin molecules can cause skin damage.) Increased hair growth is common. Damage from recurrent blistering and associated skin infections can be severe. In some cases facial features and fingers may be lost to recurrent damage and infection. Deposits of protoporphyrins can sometimes lead to red staining of the teeth and bones.

Porphyria cutanea tarda (PCT)

PCT is caused by deficient uroporphyrinogen decarboxylase. PCT is caused by mutations in the uroporphyrinogen decarboxylase gene (UROD) located at 1p34. PCT may occur as an acquired or an inherited condition. The acquired form usually does not appear until adulthood. The inherited form may appear in childhood, but often demonstrates no symptoms. Early symptoms include blistering on the hands, face, and arms following minor injuries or exposure to sunlight. Lightening or darkening of the skin may occur along with increased hair growth or loss of hair. Liver function is abnormal but the signs are mild.

Hepatoerythopoietic porphyria (HEP)

HEP is linked to a deficiency of uroporphyrinogen decarboxylase in both the liver and the bone marrow. HEP is an autosomal recessive disease caused by mutations in the gene responsible for PCT, the uroporphyrinogen decarboxylase gene (UROD), located at 1p34. The gene is shared, but the mutations, inheritance, and specific symptoms of these two diseases are different. The symptoms of HEP resemble those of CEP.

Hereditary coproporphyria (HCP)

HCP is similar to AIP, but the symptoms are typically milder. HCP is caused by a deficiency of coproporphyrinogen oxidase due to mutations in a gene by the same name at 3q12. The greatest difference between HCP and AIP is that people with HCP may have some skin sensitivity to sunlight. However, extensive damage to the skin is rarely seen.

Variegate porphyria (VP)

VP is caused by a deficiency of protoporphyrinogen oxidase. There is scientific evidence that VP is caused by mutation in the gene for protoporphyrinogen oxidase located at 1q22. Like AIP, symptoms of VP occur only during attacks. Major symptoms of this type of porphyria include neurological problems and sensitivity to light. Areas of the skin that are exposed to sunlight are susceptible to burning, blistering, and scarring.

Erythropoietic protoporphyria (EPP)

Owing to deficient ferrochelatase, the last step in the heme biosynthesis pathway—the insertion of an iron atom into a porphyrin molecule—cannot be completed. This enzyme deficiency is caused by mutations in the ferrochelatase gene (FECH) located at 18q21.3. The major symptoms of this disorder are related to sensitivity to light—including both artificial and natural light sources. Following exposure to light, a child with EPP experiences burning, itching , swelling, and reddening of the skin. Blistering and scarring may occur but are neither common nor severe. EPP is associated with increased risks for gallstones and liver complications. Symptoms can appear in childhood and tend to be more severe during the summer when exposure to sunlight is more likely.


Depending on the array of symptoms a child may exhibit, the possibility of porphyria may not immediately come to a physician's mind. In the absence of a family history of porphyria, non-specific symptoms, such as abdominal pain and vomiting, may be attributed to other disorders. Neurological symptoms, including confusion and hallucinations, can lead to an initial suspicion of psychiatric disease. Diagnosis is more easily accomplished in cases in which non-specific symptoms appear in combination with symptoms more specific to porphyria, like neuropathy, sensitivity to sunlight, or certain other manifestations. Certain symptoms, such as urine the color of port wine, are hallmark signs very specific to porphyria. DNA analysis is not yet of routine diagnostic value.

A common initial test measures protoporphyrins in the urine. However, if skin sensitivity to light is a symptom, a blood plasma test is indicated. If these tests reveal abnormal levels of protoporphyrins, further tests are done to measure heme precursor levels in red blood cells and the stool. The presence and estimated quantity of porphyrin and protoporphyrins in biological samples are easily detected using spectrofluorometric testing. Spectrofluorometric testing uses a spectrofluorometer that directs light of a specific strength at a fluid sample. The porphyrins and protoporphyrins in the sample absorb the light energy and fluoresce, or glow. The spectrofluorometer detects and measures fluorescence, which indicates the amount of porphyrins and protoporphyrins in the sample.

Whether heme precursors occur in the blood, urine, or stool gives some indication of the type of porphyria, but more detailed biochemical testing is required to determine their exact identity. Making this determination yields a strong indicator of which enzyme in the heme biosynthesis pathway is defective; which, in turn, allows a diagnosis of the particular type of porphyria.

Biochemical tests rely on the color, chemical properties, and other unique features of each heme precursor. For example, a screening test for acute intermittent porphyria (AIP) is the Watson-Schwartz test. In this test, a special dye is added to a urine sample. If one of two heme precursors—porphobilinogen or urobilinogen—is present, the sample turns pink or red. Further testing is necessary to determine whether the precursor present is porphobilinogen or urobilinogen—only porphobilinogen is indicative of AIP.

Other biochemical tests rely on the fact that heme precursors become less soluble in water (able to be dissolved in water) as they progress further through the heme biosynthesis pathway. For example, to determine whether the Watson-Schwartz urine test is positive for porphobilinogen or urobilinogen, chloroform is added to the test tube. Chloroform is a water-insoluble substance. Even after vigorous mixing, the water and chloroform separate into two distinct layers. Urobilinogen is slightly insoluble in water, while porphobilinogen tends to be water-soluble. The porphobilinogen mixes more readily in water than chloroform, so if the water layer is pink (from the dye added to the urine sample), that indicates the presence of porphobilinogen, and a diagnosis of AIP is probable.

As a final test, measuring specific enzymes and their activities may be done for some types of porphyrias; however, such tests are not done as a screening method. Certain enzymes, such as porphobilinogen deaminase (the defective enzyme in AIP), can be easily extracted from red blood cells; other enzymes, however, are less readily collected or tested. Basically, an enzyme test involves adding a certain amount of the enzyme to a test tube that contains the precursor it is supposed to modify. Both the production of modified precursor and the rate at which it appears can be measured using laboratory equipment. If a modified precursor is produced, the test indicates that the enzyme is doing its job. The rate at which the modified precursor is produced can be compared to a standard to measure the efficiency of the enzyme.


Treatment for porphyria revolves around avoiding acute attacks, limiting potential effects, and treating symptoms. Treatment options vary depending on the specific type of porphyria diagnosed. Gene therapy has been successful for both CEP and EPP. In the future, scientists expect development of gene therapy for the remaining porphyrias. Given the rarity of ALA dehydratase porphyria, definitive treatment guidelines for this rare type have not been developed.

Acute intermittent porphyria, hereditary coproporphyria, and variegate porphyria

Treatment for acute intermittent porphyria, hereditary coproporphyria, and variegate porphyria follows the same basic regime. A child who has been diagnosed with one of these porphyrias can prevent most attacks by avoiding precipitating factors, such as certain drugs that have been identified as triggers for acute porphyria attacks. Individuals must maintain adequate nutrition , particularly with respect to carbohydrates. In some cases, an attack can be stopped by increasing carbohydrate consumption or by receiving carbohydrates intravenously.

When attacks occur prompt medical attention is necessary. Pain is usually severe, and narcotic analgesics are the best option for relief. Phenothiazines can be used to counter nausea, vomiting, and anxiety , and chloral hydrate or diazepam is useful for sedation or to induce sleep . Hematin, a drug administered intravenously, may be used to halt an attack. Hematin seems to work by signaling the pathway of heme biosynthesis to slow production of precursors. Older girls, who tend to develop symptoms more frequently than boys owing to hormonal fluctuations, may find ovulation-inhibiting hormone therapy to be helpful.

Gene therapy is a possible future treatment for these porphyrias. An experimental animal model of AIP has been developed and research is in progress.

Congenital erythropoietic porphyria

The key points of congenital erythropoietic porphyria treatment are avoiding exposure to sunlight and prevention of skin trauma or skin infection. Liberal use of sunscreens and consumption of beta-carotene supplements can provide some protection from sun-induced damage. Medical treatments such as removing the spleen or administering transfusions of red blood cells can create short-term benefits, but these treatments do not offer a cure. Remission can sometimes be achieved after treatment with oral doses of activated charcoal. Severely affected patients may be offered bone marrow transplantation which appears to confer long-term benefit.

Porphyria cutanea tarda

As with other porphyrias, the first line of defense is avoidance of factors, especially alcohol, that could bring about symptoms. Regular blood withdrawal is a proven therapy for pushing symptoms into remission. If an individual is anemic or cannot have blood drawn for other reasons, chloroquine therapy may be used.

Erythropoietic protoporphyria

Avoiding sunlight, using sunscreens, and taking beta-carotene supplements are typical treatment options for erythropoietic protoporphyria. The drug cholestyramine may reduce the skin's sensitivity to sunlight as well as the accumulated heme precursors in the liver. Liver transplantation has been used in cases of liver failure, but it has not effected a long-term cure of the porphyria.

Alternative treatment

Acute porphyria attacks can be life-threatening events, so attempts at self-treatment can be dangerous. Alternative treatments can be useful adjuncts to conventional therapy. For example, some people may find relief for the pain associated with acute intermittent porphyria, hereditary coproporphyria, or variegate porphyria through acupuncture or hypnosis. Relaxation techniques, such as yoga or meditation, may also prove helpful in pain management .


Even when porphyria is inherited, symptom development depends on a variety of factors. In the majority of cases, a person remains asymptomatic throughout life. About 1 percent of acute attacks can be fatal. Other symptoms may be associated with temporarily debilitating or permanently disfiguring consequences. Measures to avoid these consequences are not always successful, regardless of how diligently they are pursued. Although pregnancy has been known to trigger porphyria attacks, dangers associated with pregnancy as not as great as was once thought.


For the most part, the porphyrias are attributable to inherited genes; such inheritance cannot be prevented. However, symptoms can be limited or prevented by avoiding factors that trigger symptom development.

Children with a family history of an acute porphyria should be screened for the disease. Even if symptoms are absent, it is useful to know about the presence of the gene to assess the risks of developing the associated porphyria. This knowledge also reveals whether a person's offspring may be at risk. Prenatal testing for certain porphyrias is possible. Prenatal diagnosis of congenital erythropoietic porphyria has been successfully accomplished. Any prenatal tests, however, would not indicate whether a child would develop porphyria symptoms; only that the potential is there.

Parental concerns

Many children with porphyria do not have symptoms. Many acute attacks can be prevented by knowing what causes the attacks, and avoiding those things in the diet or environment that result in acute attacks.


Autosomal dominant —A pattern of inheritance in which only one of the two copies of an autosomal gene must be abnormal for a genetic condition or disease to occur. An autosomal gene is a gene that is located on one of the autosomes or non-sex chromosomes. A person with an autosomal dominant disorder has a 50 percent chance of passing it to each of their offspring.

Autosomal recessive —A pattern of inheritance in which both copies of an autosomal gene must be abnormal for a genetic condition or disease to occur. An autosomal gene is a gene that is located on one of the autosomes or non-sex chromosomes. When both parents have one abnormal copy of the same gene, they have a 25 percent chance with each pregnancy that their offspring will have the disorder.

Biosynthesis —The manufacture of materials in a biological system.

Bone marrow —The spongy tissue inside the large bones in the body that is responsible for making the red blood cells, most white blood cells, and platelets.

Chromosome —A microscopic thread-like structure found within each cell of the human body and consisting of a complex of proteins and DNA. Humans have 46 chromosomes arranged into 23 pairs. Chromosomes contain the genetic information necessary to direct the development and functioning of all cells and systems in the body. They pass on hereditary traits from parents to child (like eye color) and determine whether the child will be male or female.

Enzyme —A protein that catalyzes a biochemical reaction without changing its own structure or function.

Erythropoiesis —The process through which new red blood cells are created; it begins in the bone marrow.

Erythropoietic —Referring to the creation of new red blood cells.

Gene —A building block of inheritance, which contains the instructions for the production of a particular protein, and is made up of a molecular sequence found on a section of DNA. Each gene is found on a precise location on a chromosome.

Hematin —A drug administered intravenously to halt an acute porphyria attack. It causes heme biosynthesis to decrease, preventing the further accumulation of heme precursors.

Heme —The iron-containing molecule in hemoglobin that serves as the site for oxygen binding.

Hemoglobin —An iron-containing pigment of red blood cells composed of four amino acid chains (alpha, beta, gamma, delta) that delivers oxygen from the lungs to the cells of the body and carries carbon dioxide from the cells to the lungs.

Hepatic —Refers to the liver.

Neuropathy —A disease or abnormality of the peripheral nerves (the nerves outside the brain and spinal cord). Major symptoms include weakness, numbness, paralysis, or pain in the affected area.

Porphyrin —An organic compound found in living things that founds the foundation structure for hemoglobin, chlorophyll, and other respiratory pigments. In humans, porphyrins combine with iron to form hemes.

Protoporphyrin —A kind of porphyrin that links with iron to form the heme of hemoglobin.

When to call a doctor

Notify a doctor if the child appears to have an acute attack. Some signs and symptoms of an acute attack are: pain, red, burning or blistering skin, red urine, neurological changes, or psychological changes.



Deats-O'Reilly, Diana. Porphyria: The Unknown Disease. Grand Forks, N.D.: Porphyrin Publications Press/Educational Services, 1999.


Gordon, Neal. "The Acute Porphyrias." Brain & Development 21 (September 1999): 373–77.

Thadani, Helen et al. "Diagnosis and Management of Porphyria." British Medical Journal 320 (June 2000): 1647–51.


American Porphyria Foundation. PO Box 22712, Houston, TX 77227. (713) 266-9617. http://www.porphyriafoundation.com/.


Gene Clinics. Available online at http://www.geneclinics.org.

National Institute of Diabetes & Digestive & Kidney Diseases. Available online at http://www.niddk.nih.gov.

Online Mendelian Inheritance in Man (OMIM). Available online at http://www3.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/Omim.

Mark A. Best Julia Barrett Judy C. Hawkins, MS

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