Acute intermittent porphyria

Classification and external resources
Specialty endocrinology
ICD-10 E80.2
ICD-9-CM 277.1
OMIM 176000
DiseasesDB 171
eMedicine med/1880
MeSH D017118

Acute intermittent porphyria (AIP) is a rare autosomal dominant[1] metabolic disorder affecting the production of heme, the oxygen-binding prosthetic group of hemoglobin. It is characterized by a deficiency of the enzyme porphobilinogen deaminase. Acute intermittent porphyria is the second most common form of porphyria (porphyria cutanea tarda being the most common).[2]:525 Its incidence is estimated to be between 5 and 10 in 100,000, but this is likely underestimated because of positive cases not being induced, and long periods of latency, with an estimation that it is latent in 90% of cases.[3]

Signs and symptoms

Signs and symptoms of AIP can be variable. Severe and poorly localized abdominal pain is a very common symptom (found in 95% of those affected by AIP). Urinary symptoms such as painful urination, urinary retention, urinary incontinence, or dark urine have also been known to occur. Psychiatric signs and symptoms of AIP may manifest as anxiety, agitation, hallucinations, delirium, or depression. Signs that suggest dysfunction of the autonomic nervous system may be evident including an abnormally fast heart rate, high blood pressure, sweating, restlessness, and tremor. Other neurologic signs and symptoms of AIP include peripheral neuropathy and abnormal sensations. Proximal muscle weakness typically beginning in the arms is characteristic; the muscle weakness seen in AIP can progress to include the muscles of breathing and can be fatal.

Electrolyte disturbances such as low blood sodium may be seen due to SIADH when the hypothalamus is involved in the disease process. One possible complication of low blood sodium in those with AIP is seizures.[4] Unlike other porphyrias, rash is not typically seen in AIP.


A Swedish study indicated that approximately 90% of cases of acute intermittent porphyria are due to a mutation in the HMBS gene that causes decreased amounts of the enzyme, and to a lesser degree by a mutation that causes decreased activity of each enzyme molecule.[5]

Under normal circumstances, heme synthesis begins in the mitochondrion, proceeds into the cytoplasm, and finishes back in the mitochondrion. However, without porphobilinogen deaminase, a necessary cytoplasmic enzyme, heme synthesis cannot finish, and the metabolite porphobilinogen accumulates in the cytoplasm.[6]

Additional factors must also be present such as hormones, drugs, and dietary changes that trigger the appearance of symptoms. Symptoms of AIP may include abdominal pain, constipation, and muscle weakness.

Patients with AIP are commonly misdiagnosed with psychiatric diseases. Subsequent treatment with anti-psychotics increases the accumulation of porphobilinogen, thus aggravating the disease enough that it may prove fatal.

It should not be mistaken that the enzyme porphobilinogen deaminase could also be called hydroxymethylbilane synthase. Gene mutation located on chromosome 11q23.3. Mutations include deletions, inversions, and translations.


A high-carbohydrate (10% glucose) infusion is recommended, which may aid in recovery. If drugs have caused the attack, discontinuing the offending substances is essential. Infection is one of the top causes of attacks and requires vigorous treatment. Pain is extremely severe and almost always requires the use of opiates to reduce it to tolerable levels. Pain should be treated as early as medically possible due to its severity. Nausea can be severe; it may respond to phenothiazine drugs but is sometimes intractable. Hot water baths or showers may lessen nausea temporarily, but can present a risk of burns or falls.[7]

Hematin and heme arginate are the drugs of choice in acute porphyria, in the United States and the United Kingdom, respectively. These drugs need to be given very early in an attack to be effective. Effectiveness varies among individuals. They are not curative drugs, but can shorten attacks and reduce the intensity of an attack. Side-effects are rare but can be serious. These heme-like substances, in theory, inhibit ALA synthase and, hence, the accumulation of toxic precursors. In the United Kingdom, supplies of this drug are maintained at two national centers. In the United States, one company manufactures Panhematin for infusion. The American Porphyria Foundation has information regarding the quick procurement of the drug.

Patients with a history of acute porphyria are recommended to wear an alert bracelet or other identification at all times in case they develop severe symptoms, a result of which may be that they cannot explain to healthcare professionals about their condition and the fact that some drugs are absolutely contraindicated. An attack of acute intermittent porphyria may be precipitated by one of the "four M's": medication, menstruation, malnutrition, maladies.

Patients that experience frequent attacks can develop chronic neuropathic pain in extremities as well as chronic pain in the gut. This is thought to be due to axonal nerve deterioration in affected areas of the nervous system. In these cases, treatment with long-acting opioids may be indicated. Some cases of chronic pain can be difficult to manage and may require treatment using multiple modalities. Depression often accompanies the disease and is best dealt with by treating the offending symptoms and, if needed, the judicious use of anti-depressants. Earl Campbell from University of Maryland performed the first successful clinical trial. Although results for this trial are still undergoing rigorous testing.

Seizures often accompany this disease. Most seizure medications exacerbate this condition. Treatment can be problematic: Barbiturates and Primidone must be avoided as they commonly precipitate symptoms.[8] Some benzodiazepines are safe, and, when used in conjunction with newer anti-seizure medications such as gabapentin, offer a possible regimen for seizure control.

Urine of AIP sufferers may turn dark purple when exposed to ultraviolet light and air after 24 hours of exposure. The colorless porphobilinogen is changed to the dark colored porphobilin due to oxygen exposure. In this condition, there is no release of red urine and no red discoloration in the patient's skin due to the lack of porphyrin ring synthesis all together during acute attacks.

Famous sufferers

One of the many hypothesized diagnoses of the artist Vincent van Gogh is that he and his siblings, in particular his brother Theo, suffered from AIP and syphilis.[9] Another theorized sufferer was King George III of the United Kingdom [10] who even had a medallion struck to commemorate his "curing". His great-great-great-great-grandson Prince William of Gloucester was reliably diagnosed with variegate porphyria in 1968.[11] It's probable that the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau suffered from porphyria.[12][13][14][15]

In popular culture


  1. Whatley SD, Roberts AG, Llewellyn DH, Bennett CP, Garrett C, Elder GH (2000). "Non-erythroid form of acute intermittent porphyria caused by promoter and frameshift mutations distant from the coding sequence of exon 1 of the HMBS gene". Hum. Genet. 107 (3): 243–8. doi:10.1007/s004390000356. PMID 11071386.
  2. James, William D.; Berger, Timothy; et al. (2006). Andrews' Diseases of the Skin: clinical Dermatology. Saunders Elsevier. ISBN 0-7216-2921-0.
  3. Medscape > Diseases of Tetrapyrrole Metabolism - Refsum Disease and the Hepatic Porphyrias Author: Norman C Reynolds. Chief Editor: Stephen A Berman. Updated: Mar 23, 2009
  4. Anderson KE, Sassa S, Bishop DF, Desnick RJ. Disorders of heme biosynthesis: X-linked sideroblastic anemias and the porphyrias. In: The Metabolic and Molecular Basis of Inherited Disease, 8th ed, Scriver CR, Beaudet AL, Sly WS, et al. (Eds), McGraw-Hill, New York 2001. p.2991.
  5. Lannfelt, L.; Wetterberg, L.; Gellerfors, P.; Lilius, L.; Floderus, Y.; Thunell, S. (1989). "Mutations in acute intermittent porphyria detected by ELISA measurement of porphobilinogen deaminase". Journal of clinical chemistry and clinical biochemistry. Zeitschrift fur klinische Chemie und klinische Biochemie. 27 (11): 857–862. doi:10.1515/cclm.1989.27.11.857. PMID 2607315.
  6. Aarsand, AK; Petersen PH; Sandberg S (April 2006). "Estimation and application of biological variation of urinary delta-aminolevulinic acid and porphobilinogen in healthy individuals and in patients with acute intermittent porphyria". Clinical Chemistry. 52 (4): 650–656. doi:10.1373/clinchem.2005.060772. PMID 16595824.
  7. Marcucci, Lisa (2004). PathCards. Baltimore, MD: Lippincott Willians & Wilkins. pp. 105–106. ISBN 978-0-7817-4399-0.
  8. Arnold, Wilfred N. Vincent van Gogh: Chemicals, Crises, and Creativity, Birkhãuser, Boston, 1992. ISBN 0-8176-3616-1.
  9. Macalpine, Ida and Hunter,Richard 'The Insanity of King George III: A Classic Case of Porphyria', British Medical Journal (1966)
  10. Rohl, John C.G. et al., Purple Secret, London: Bantam Press (1998)
  11. Bartolo Anglani, Le maschere dell'io: Rousseau e la menzogna autobiografica, Schena, 1995, pag. 113
  12. "Jean-Jacques Rousseau l'errante / Letteratura e bisogni speciali 6". La Letteratura e Noi - diretto da Romano Luperini (in Italian). Retrieved 18 November 2015.
  13. "Las enfermedades de Jean-Jacques Rousseau". Revista Aleph (in Spanish). Retrieved 18 November 2015.
  14. Acute intermittent porphyria: a new hypothesis to explain Jean-Jacques Rousseau's urinary disorders
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