Medscape is available in 5 Language Editions – Choose your Edition here.


Phenylketonuria Treatment & Management

  • Author: Georgianne L Arnold, MD; Chief Editor: Luis O Rohena, MD  more...
Updated: Apr 28, 2014

Approach Considerations

Most patients with phenylketonuria (PKU) are treated in a specialty metabolic disease clinic, and such patients are probably best served by being followed in such a clinic. A psychologist should perform developmental testing at regular intervals. Whenever possible, the patient and parents should work with a nutritionist experienced in PKU, usually as part of a PKU or metabolic disease clinic.

Treatment consists of dietary restriction of phenylalanine often with tyrosine supplementation. Other essential amino acids are supplemented using various medical foods, and vitamin, mineral, and other micronutrients are followed closely. Stringent phenylalanine-restricted diets have been reported to cause deficiencies of iron, zinc, selenium, and other nutrients and essential amino acids in patients with PKU. The diet requires careful monitoring by a professional trained in PKU management.

Phenylalanine levels are followed at regular intervals, from 1-2 times weekly in neonates to perhaps once per month in older children and adults. Most US facilities recommend that phenylalanine levels be maintained in the range of 2-6 mg/dL (120-360 µmol/L). This requires expert care and close monitoring.

The diet should not be terminated after adolescence, because strong evidence indicates that hyperphenylalaninemia can have detrimental effects in adult patients. Some adults with untreated phenylketonuria who have intellectual disability may show improvement in behavior and physical manifestations when treated with a phenylalanine-restricted diet.

Normal levels of activity should be expected in patients who are adequately treated.

Recently, sapropterin has been approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as a treatment for PKU. It seems to be effective in a subset of patients. Although patients with classic PKU are less likely to be responders, response has been documented in this group and a trial is not unreasonable.[14]

Preliminary studies are underway for injectable phenylamine ammonium lyase, an enzyme substitute. Animal studies show promise as an alternative treatment to control phenylalanine levels.[11]


Dietary Measures

At present, because of the lack of internationally accepted guidelines, the management of PKU varies among countries. However, it is generally agreed that dietary management and/or pharmacologic treatment are essential. The mainstay of the diet consists of phenylalanine restriction and supplementation of other essential amino acids, vitamins, minerals, and energy intake, using medical foods and low-protein foods.[4]

Aspartame must also be eliminated. Phenylalanine is one of the primary components of aspartame. It is found in many artificially sweetened foods and soft drinks, as well as some vitamins and medicines. A 12-oz can of aspartame-sweetened diet drink contains approximately 105 mg of phenylalanine (ie, 25-50% of the usual daily intake).

Most newborns with phenylketonuria require 40-60 mg/kg/d of dietary phenylalanine to maintain normal growth and development. Breastfeeding is usually possible and should not be stopped unless instructed to do so by a local health official or treatment facility. As growth slows, the phenylalanine requirement falls, and most older children and adults tolerate 200-400 mg/d.

Providing some natural phenylalanine is essential in order to prevent deficiency of this essential amino acid. The diet requires virtual elimination of all high-protein foods, such as meat, dairy, nuts, and legumes. Starches, including bread, potatoes, corn, and beans, also must be restricted (a slice of bread or small order of fries contains approximately 120-150 mg of phenylalanine).

Essential amino acids, vitamins, and minerals must be supplemented by using medical foods. Currently, most are consumed as a powder dissolved in liquid (ie, formula). Newer supplements, including capsules, amino acid bars, and amino acids cooked into foods, are becoming available.

Energy and variety are provided by low-protein foods, including fruits and nonstarchy vegetables, as well as specially ordered low-protein foods. Low-protein foods include pastas, breads, imitation cheese, baking mixes, and other foods especially designated for low-protein diets. These foods are covered by medical benefits in some states.

Because most US patients prefer a standard American diet, some teens and older children cheat by failing to limit quantities of high-protein, nonmeat foods, such as potatoes (eg, fries, chips, mashed potatoes), pasta, bread, and pizza crust (minus the cheese); however, few teens who were well managed as children cheat by consuming meat.

Advice on specific diet recommendations can be found at many Web sites devoted to PKU. The Web site National PKU News has extensive dietary recommendations. Links to a variety of international organizations for PKU can be found under “Related Links.” The material is available in some languages other than English, including German, Danish, Dutch, and Spanish. Food companies distributing products useful for low-protein diets are also listed.


Pharmacologic Therapy

Because some patients are not able to adhere rigorously to the phenylalanine-restricted diet during life, alternative treatment regimens have been developed.[15]

Patients who refuse dietary treatment may benefit to some degree from consuming large neutral amino acids. These may compete with phenylalanine at the blood-brain barrier and block phenylalanine entry into the brain, and they may also result in a modest lowering of plasma phenylalanine levels.

One study of neuropsychological response to large neutral amino acid supplementation found no advantage to consuming large neutral amino acid supplements in patients already on diet and medical food; some benefit in executive functions in some domains was reported, but attention was better on diet and medical food.[16] Large neutral amino acid (LNAA) use in PKU is controversial until additional studies prove safety and efficacy.

Some patients with phenylketonuria experience significant lowering of plasma phenylalanine levels after administration of sapropterin, a commercially available, FDA-approved form of the tetrahydrobiopterin (BH4) cofactor.[5] Unfortunately, those with some residual enzyme activity are more likely to respond than those with no residual enzyme.

One study found that although 54% of those with plasma phenylalanine levels lower than 600 µmol/L (10 mg/dL) had a reduction in plasma phenylalanine levels of 30% or more after 10 mg/kg/day of sapropterin, only 10% of those with phenylalanine levels higher than 1200 µmol/L had such a response.[5]

An alternative enzyme therapy for PKU in clinical trials involves the use of an injectable form of phenylalanine ammonium lyase, an enzyme capable of substituting for phenylalanine hydroxylase (PAH).[17] This therapy is currently under investigation for the potential treatment of patients with PKU who do not respond to BH4.

Research into gene therapy for the treatment of PKU has been ongoing over the last 2 decades. The focus has been on replacement of the human mutant PAH gene in somatic cells of PKU patients.[18]


Treatment of Pregnant Patients

Surveys have revealed that maternal phenylalanine blood concentrations higher than 1200 µmol/L are associated with facial dysmorphism, fetal microcephaly, learning difficulties, congenital heart defects, and intrauterine growth retardation.[19] Accordingly, maternal blood phenylalanine levels should be maintained in the range of 2-6 mg/dL (120-360 µmol/L) by means of dietary control. The diet should provide adequate energy, protein, vitamin, and mineral intake.

Treatment at any time during pregnancy may reduce the severity of developmental delay. Women with PKU should start a phenylalanine-restricted diet before conception, and those contemplating pregnancy or who are pregnant should be treated in metabolic or PKU clinics.


Long-Term Monitoring

Phenylalanine levels are monitored typically twice a week in neonates, weekly in infants, biweekly or every 3 weeks in toddlers, and monthly thereafter, even during adult life.

Attention should be given to variability in blood phenylalanine levels and to maintenance within the recommended range.[20]

During pregnancy, weekly phenylalanine sampling is recommended.

Contributor Information and Disclosures

Georgianne L Arnold, MD Faculty, Department of Pediatrics, Divison of Genetics, University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine

Georgianne L Arnold, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American College of Medical Genetics and Genomics, Society for Inherited Metabolic Disorders, Society for the Study of Inborn Errors of Metabolism, American Society of Human Genetics

Disclosure: Received grant/research funds from Biomarin for clinical trial.


Robert D Steiner, MD Chief Medical Officer, Acer Therapeutics; Clinical Professor, University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health

Robert D Steiner, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Pediatrics, American Association for the Advancement of Science, American College of Medical Genetics and Genomics, American Society of Human Genetics, Society for Inherited Metabolic Disorders, Society for Pediatric Research, Society for the Study of Inborn Errors of Metabolism

Disclosure: Serve(d) as a director, officer, partner, employee, advisor, consultant or trustee for: Acer Therapeutics; Retrophin; Raptor Pharma; Veritas Genetics; Censa Pharma<br/>Received income in an amount equal to or greater than $250 from: Acer Therapeutics; Retrophin; Raptor Pharma; Censa Pharma.

Chief Editor

Luis O Rohena, MD Chief, Medical Genetics, San Antonio Military Medical Center; Assistant Professor of Pediatrics, Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, F Edward Hebert School of Medicine; Assistant Professor of Pediatrics, University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio

Luis O Rohena, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Pediatrics, American Chemical Society, American College of Medical Genetics and Genomics, American Society of Human Genetics

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.


David F Butler, MD Professor of Dermatology, Texas A&M University College of Medicine; Chair, Department of Dermatology, Director, Dermatology Residency Training Program, Scott and White Clinic, Northside Clinic

David F Butler, MD is a member of the following medical societies: Alpha Omega Alpha, American Academy of Dermatology, American Medical Association, American Society for Dermatologic Surgery, American Society for MOHS Surgery, Association of Military Dermatologists, and Phi Beta Kappa

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Mark A Crowe, MD Assistant Clinical Instructor, Department of Medicine, Division of Dermatology, University of Washington School of Medicine

Mark A Crowe, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Dermatology and North American Clinical Dermatologic Society

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

William D James, MD, Paul R Gross Professor of Dermatology, University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine; Vice-Chair, Program Director, Department of Dermatology, University of Pennsylvania Health System

William D James, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Dermatology, and the Society for Investigative Dermatology.

Disclosure: Royalty from Elselvier.

Djordjije Karadaglic, MD, DSc Professor, School of Medicine, University of Podgorica, Podgorica, Montenegro

Djordjije Karadaglic, MD, DSc is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Dermatology, European Academy of Dermatology and Venereology, and Serbian Association of DermatoVenereologists

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose

Zeljko P Mijuskovic, MD, PhD Associate Professor of Dermatology, Department of Dermatology and Venereology, Military Medical Academy, Serbia

Zeljko P Mijuskovic, MD, PhD is a member of the following medical societies: European Academy of Dermatology and Venereology, European Society for Dermatological Research, International Society of Dermatology, and Serbian Association of DermatoVenereologists

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Christian J Renner, MD Consulting Staff, Department of Pediatrics, University Hospital for Children and Adolescents, Erlangen, Germany

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Robert A Schwartz, MD, MPH Professor and Head, Dermatology, Professor of Pathology, Pediatrics, Medicine, and Preventive Medicine and Community Health, University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey-New Jersey Medical School

Robert A Schwartz, MD, MPH is a member of the following medical societies: Alpha Omega Alpha, American Academy of Dermatology, American College of Physicians, and Sigma Xi

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Ljubomir Stojanov, MD, PhD Lecturer in Metabolism and Clinical Genetics, University of Belgrade School of Medicine, Serbia

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Mary L Windle, PharmD, Adjunct Associate Professor, University of Nebraska Medical Center College of Pharmacy; Editor-in-Chief, Medscape Drug Reference

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

  1. Martynyuk AE, Ucar DA, Yang DD, et al. Epilepsy in phenylketonuria: a complex dependence on serum phenylalanine levels. Epilepsia. 2007 Jun. 48(6):1143-50. [Medline].

  2. Cleary MA, Walter JH, Wraith JE, et al. Magnetic resonance imaging of the brain in phenylketonuria. Lancet. 1994 Jul 9. 344(8915):87-90. [Medline].

  3. Sarkissian CN, Gámez A, Scriver CR. What we know that could influence future treatment of phenylketonuria. J Inherit Metab Dis. 2009 Feb. 32(1):3-9. [Medline].

  4. Yannicelli S, Ryan A. Improvements in behaviour and physical manifestations in previously untreated adults with phenylketonuria using a phenylalanine-restricted diet: a national survey. J Inherit Metab Dis. 1995. 18(2):131-4. [Medline].

  5. Burton BK, Grange DK, Milanowski A, et al. The response of patients with phenylketonuria and elevated serum phenylalanine to treatment with oral sapropterin dihydrochloride (6R-tetrahydrobiopterin): a phase II, multicentre, open-label, screening study. J Inherit Metab Dis. 2007 Oct. 30(5):700-7. [Medline].

  6. Donati A, Vincenzi C, Tosti A. Acute hair loss in phenylketonuria. J Eur Acad Dermatol Venereol. 2009 May. 23(5):613-5. [Medline].

  7. Santos LL, Castro-Magalhaes M, Fonseca CG, et al. PKU in Minas Gerais State, Brazil: mutation analysis. Ann Hum Genet. 2008 Nov. 72:774-9. [Medline].

  8. Stojiljkovic M, Jovanovic J, Djordjevic M, et al. Molecular and phenotypic characteristics of patients with phenylketonuria in Serbia and Montenegro. Clin Genet. 2006 Aug. 70(2):151-5. [Medline].

  9. Guldberg P, Henriksen KF, Sipila I, Guttler F, de la Chapelle A. Phenylketonuria in a low incidence population: molecular characterisation of mutations in Finland. J Med Genet. 1995 Dec. 32(12):976-8. [Medline]. [Full Text].

  10. Williams RA, Mamotte CD, Burnett JR. Phenylketonuria: an inborn error of phenylalanine metabolism. Clin Biochem Rev. 2008 Feb. 29(1):31-41. [Medline]. [Full Text].

  11. Bosch AM, Tybout W, van Spronsen FJ, de Valk HW, Wijburg FA, Grootenhuis MA. The course of life and quality of life of early and continuously treated Dutch patients with phenylketonuria. J Inherit Metab Dis. 2007 Feb. 30(1):29-34. [Medline].

  12. Macdonald A, Davies P, Daly A, et al. Does maternal knowledge and parent education affect blood phenylalanine control in phenylketonuria?. J Hum Nutr Diet. 2008 Aug. 21(4):351-8. [Medline].

  13. Lee PJ, Ridout D, Walter JH, Cockburn F. Maternal phenylketonuria: report from the United Kingdom Registry 1978-97. Arch Dis Child. 2005 Feb. 90(2):143-6. [Medline]. [Full Text].

  14. Vernon HJ, Koerner CB, Johnson MR, Bergner A, Hamosh A. Introduction of sapropterin dihydrochloride as standard of care in patients with phenylketonuria. Mol Genet Metab. 2010 Jul. 100(3):229-33. [Medline]. [Full Text].

  15. Bekhof J, van Rijn M, Sauer PJ, Ten Vergert EM, Reijngoud DJ, van Spronsen FJ. Plasma phenylalanine in patients with phenylketonuria self-managing their diet. Arch Dis Child. 2005 Feb. 90(2):163-4. [Medline]. [Full Text].

  16. Sarkissian CN, Gamez A, Wang L, et al. Preclinical evaluation of multiple species of PEGylated recombinant phenylalanine ammonia lyase for the treatment of phenylketonuria. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2008 Dec 30. 105(52):20894-9. [Medline]. [Full Text].

  17. Ounap K, Lillevali H, Metspalu A, Lipping-Sitska M. Development of the phenylketonuria screening programme in Estonia. J Med Screen. 1998. 5(1):22-3. [Medline].

  18. Pietz J, Kreis R, Rupp A, et al. Large neutral amino acids block phenylalanine transport into brain tissue in patients with phenylketonuria. J Clin Invest. 1999 Apr. 103(8):1169-78. [Medline]. [Full Text].

  19. Maillot F, Lilburn M, Baudin J, Morley DW, Lee PJ. Factors influencing outcomes in the offspring of mothers with phenylketonuria during pregnancy: the importance of variation in maternal blood phenylalanine. Am J Clin Nutr. 2008 Sep. 88(3):700-5. [Medline].

  20. Waisbren SE, Noel K, Fahrbach K, et al. Phenylalanine blood levels and clinical outcomes in phenylketonuria: a systematic literature review and meta-analysis. Mol Genet Metab. 2007 Sep-Oct. 92(1-2):63-70. [Medline].

  21. Brooks M. Sapropterin Can Be Effective Long-Term in PKU. Medscape. May 24 2013. Available at Accessed: June 12, 2013.

  22. Keil S, Anjema K, van Spronsen FJ, Lambruschini N, Burlina A, Bélanger-Quintana A, et al. Long-term Follow-up and Outcome of Phenylketonuria Patients on Sapropterin: A Retrospective Study. Pediatrics. 2013 Jun. 131(6):e1881-8. [Medline].

Phenylalanine hydroxylase converts phenylalanine to tyrosine.
Fair skin and hair resulting from impairment of melanin synthesis.
All material on this website is protected by copyright, Copyright © 1994-2016 by WebMD LLC. This website also contains material copyrighted by 3rd parties.