Acute Intermittent Porphyria 

Updated: Dec 22, 2018
Author: Thomas G DeLoughery, MD; Chief Editor: Emmanuel C Besa, MD 

Overview

Practice Essentials

Acute intermittent porphyria (AIP) is one of the porphyrias, a group of hereditary diseases that involve defects in heme metabolism and result in excessive secretion of porphyrins and porphyrin precursors.[1] AIP manifests as episodes of abdominal pain, neuropathies, and constipation, but, unlike most types of porphyria, patients with AIP do not have a rash.

The diagnosis of AIP can be confirmed by finding an elevated level of porphobilinogen (>6 mg/L) on a spot urine test during an acute attack (see Workup). High doses of glucose can inhibit heme synthesis and are useful for treatment of mild attacks. Patients experiencing severe attacks, especially those with severe neurologic symptoms, should be treated with hematin. During attacks, which generally last for several days, patients require symptomatic treatment for pain and other manifestations. (See Treatment and Medication.)

For more information on the porphyrias, see Porphyria Overview.

Pathophysiology

AIP is an autosomal dominant disease that results from defects in the enzyme porphobilinogen-deaminase. This enzyme speeds the conversion of porphobilinogen to hydroxymethylbilane. In AIP, the porphyrin precursors, porphobilinogen and amino-levulinic acid (ALA), accumulate. The predominant problem appears to be neurologic damage that leads to peripheral and autonomic neuropathies and psychiatric manifestations.[2]

Although levels of porphobilinogen and ALA are always elevated during acute attacks, how this leads to the symptomatic disease is still unclear because most patients with the genetic defect have excessive porphyrin secretion but no symptoms.

A case-control study in 50 patients by Storjord et al found evidence that AIP is associated with systemic inflammation. Levels of prealbumin, C-peptide, and insulin, along with measures of kidney function, were all decreased in symptomatic patients, but not in asymptomatic ones. The decrease in C-peptide levels in symptomatic AIP cases indicates that reduced insulin release is associated with enhanced disease activity and reduction in kidney function.[3]

Epidemiology

Frequency

United States

Estimates vary from 1-5 cases per 100,000 population.

International

European studies indicate that the prevalence of AlP is approximately five per 100,000 population.[4]   The prevalence can be as high as 60-100 cases per 100,000 population in northern Sweden.

Sex- and Age-related Demographics

In most series, AIP affects women more than men, with a ratio of 1.5-2:1.

Most patients become symptomatic at age 18-40 years. Attacks occurring before puberty or after age 40 years are unusual unless a major provocation, such as new use of phenobarbital or estrogens, had occurred.

 

Presentation

History

The onset of attacks in individuals with acute intermittent porphyria (AIP) typically occurs at age 18-40 years. Attacks before puberty or after age 40 years may be triggered by a major provocation, such as new use of phenobarbital or estrogens. Attacks generally last for 3 to 7 days. 

The usual sequence of events in attacks of AIP is as follows:

  1. Abdominal pain
  2. Psychiatric symptoms
  3. Peripheral neuropathies

The abdominal pain often is epigastric and colicky in nature; it is severe and lasts for several days. Constipation or vomiting may also occur. Severe abdominal pain of short (< 1 d) duration or chronic abdominal pain is unusual. Diffuse pain, especially in the upper body, may also be observed.

Patients can have a wide variety of psychiatric symptoms. Depression is very common. Usually, patients have concurrent neurologic or abdominal symptoms. A Swedish study documented a fourfold increased risk of schizophrenia or bipolar disorder in patients with AIP. The risk in relatives of individuals with AIP was increased twofold, suggesting  common genetic influences with these diseases.[5]

Peripheral neuropathies tend to be predominantly motor and can mimic Guillain-Barré syndrome. The weakness usually starts in the lower limbs and ascends, but neuropathies can be observed in any nerve distribution. Autonomic neuropathies that produce hypertension and tachycardia may also occur.

Central nervous system signs may include the following:

  • Seizures
  • Delirium
  • Cortical blindness
  • Coma

Skin manifestations are not a feature of AIP attacks, as they are of other forms of porphyria (eg, porphyria cutanea tarda). 

Between attacks, patients may be completely free of symptoms. However, emerging evidence points to chronic manifestations as a feature in 20-64% of patients with AIP. In a study of patients with frequent attacks of AIP, 18 of the 19 patients interviewed also described chronic symptoms, which were often disabling. Key chronic symptoms consisted of pain, nausea, fatigue, and features of neuropathy (eg, tingling and numbness).[6]

Physical

Vital signs during attacks of acute intermittent porphyria (AIP) include the following:

  • From 30-80% of patients have tachycardia
  • Fever can be present in some patients
  • Hypertension is observed in half of patients and may persist between attacks

Neurological manifestations are as follows:

  • Usually, the neuropathy is a motor neuropathy that is more predominant in the lower limbs
  • Areflexia often is present on examination
  • Any nerve can be involved, and cranial neuropathies also are observed
  • Patients also may have cortical blindness

Despite the intense pain, the findings on abdominal examination often are nonspecific. Skin examination is noncontributory; unlike many other porphyrias, AIP is not associated with a skin rash.

Causes

Acute intermittent porphyria (AIP) is due to a combination of a genetic enzyme defect and acquired causes that become symptomatic only in some patients. In patients with AIP, the function of porphobilinogen-deaminase is only 40-60% of normal. With the advent of molecular technique, it has become clear that the genetic defect is more common than symptomatic AIP. On average, out of 100 patients with the genetic defect, perhaps 10-20 secrete excess porphyrin precursors and only 1-2 have symptoms.

The classic inducers of porphyria are chemicals or situations that boost heme synthesis. This includes fasting and many medications. Although very large lists of "safe" and "unsafe" drugs exist, many of these are based on anecdotes or laboratory evidence and do not meet strict criteria. In general, drugs that lead to increased activity of the hepatic P450 system, such as phenobarbital, sulfonamides, estrogens, and alcohol, are associated with porphyria.

A large and detailed list is available on the University of Queensland, Department of Medicine Web site.

Fasting for several days also can trigger an attack. However, many attacks occur without any obvious provocation.

Table 1. Drugs Thought Safe in Porphyria* (Open Table in a new window)

Acetazolamide acetylcholine

Actinomycin D[7]

Acyclovir

Adenosine monophosphate

Adrenaline

Alclofenac

Allopurinol

Alpha tocopheryl

Acetate

Amethocaine

Amiloride

Aminocaproic acid

Aminoglycosides

Amoxicillin

Amphotericin

Ampicillin

Ascorbic acid

Aspirin

Atenolol

Atropine

Azathioprine

Beclomethasone

Benzhexol HCl

Beta-carotene

Biguanides

[Bromazepam]

Bromides

Buflomedil HCl

Bumetanide

Bupivacaine

Buprenorphine

Buserelin

Butacaine SO4

Canthaxanthin

Carbimazole

[Carpipramine HCl]

Chloral hydrate

[Chlormethiazole]

[Chloroquine]

[Chlorothiazide]

Chlorpheniramine

Chlorpromazine

Ciprofloxacin

Cisapride

Cisplatin

Clavulanic acid

Clofibrate

Clomiphene

Cloxacillin

Co-codamol

Codeine phosphate

Colchicine

[Corticosteroids]

Corticotrophin (adrenocorticotropic hormone [ACTH])

Coumarins

Cyclizine

Cyclopenthiazide

Cyclopropane

[Cyproterone acetate]

Danthron

Desferrioxamine

Dexamethasone

[Dextromoramide]

Dextrose

Diamorphine

Diazoxide

Dicyclomine HCl

Diflunisal

Digoxin

Dihydrocodeine

Dimercaprol

Dimethicone

Dinoprost

Diphenoxylate HCl

Dipyridamole

[Disopyramide]

Domperidone

Doxorubicin HCl

Droperidol

[Estazolam]

Ethacrynic acid

Ethambutol

[Ethinyl oestradiol]

Ethoheptazine citrate

Etoposide

Famotidine

Fenbufen

[Fenofibrate]

Fenoprofen

Fentanyl

Flucytosine

Flumazenil

Fluoxetine HCl

Flurbiprofen

Fluvoxamine

Maleate

Folic acid

Fructose

Fusidic acid

Follicle-stimulating hormone

Gentamicin

Glafenine

Glucagon

Glucose

Glyceryl trinitrate

Goserelin

Guanethidine

Guanfacine HCl

Haem arginate

[Haloperidol]

Heparin

Heptaminol HCl

Hexamine

[Hydrocortisone]

Ibuprofen

Indomethacin

Insulin

Iron

Josamycin

[Ketamine]

Ketoprofen

Ketotifen

Labetalol

Luteinizing hormone–releasing hormone

Liquorice

Lithium

Salts lofepramine

Loperamide

[Lorazepam]

Magnesium-sulphate

[Mebendazole]

Mecamylamine

Meclofenoxate HCl

Meclozine

Mefloquine HCl

[Melphalan]

Meptazinol

Mequitazine

Metformin

Methadone

[Methotrimeprazine]

Methylphenidate

Methyluracil

Metipropranolol

Metopimazine

Metoprolol

[Metronidazole]

[Midazolam]

Minaprine HCl

Minaxolone

Morphine

Nadolol

Naftidrofuryl

Oxalate

[Naproxen sodium]

Natamycin

Nefopam HCl

Neostigmine

Netilmicin

Niflumic acid

Nitrous oxide

Norfloxacin

Ofloxacin

Oxolinic acid

Oxybuprocaine

[Oxyphenbutazone]

Oxytocin

[Pancuronium bromide]

Paracetamol

Paraldehyde

Parapenzolate Br

Penicillamine

Penicillin

Pentolinium

Pericyazine

Pethidine

Phenformin

Phenoperidine

Phentolamine mesylate

Pipotiazine

Palmitate

Piracetam

Pirbuterol

Pirenzepine

Pizotifen

[Prazosin]

[Prednisolone]

Primaquine

Probucol

Procainamide HCl

Procaine

Prochlorperazine

Proguanil HCl

Promazine

Propantheline Br

Propofol

Propranolol

Propylthiouracil

[Proxymetacaine]

Pseudoephedrine HCl

Pyridoxine

[Pyrimethamine]

Quinidine

Quinine

[Ranitidine]

Reserpine

Resorcinol

Salbutamol

Senna

Sodium bromide

Sodium ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid

Sodium fusidate

Sorbitol

Streptomycin

Sulbutiamine

Sulindac

Sulfadoxine

Suxamethonium

Talampicillin

Temazepam

Tetracaine

[Tetracyclines]

Thiouracils

Thyroxine

Tiaprofenic acid

Ticarcillin

Tienilic acid

Timolol maleate

Tolazoline

Tranexamic acid

Triacetyloleandomycin

Triamterene

Triazolam

[Trichlormethiazide]

Trifluoperazine

Trimeprazine

Tartrate

Trimetazidine HCl

Tripelennamine

Tubocurarine

Vancomycin

[Vincristine]

Vitamins

Warfarin sodium

Zidovudine

Zinc preparations

*Bracketed [] drugs are those in which experimental evidence of porphyrin genicity is conflicting.

Table 2. Drugs Thought Unsafe in Porphyria (Open Table in a new window)

Alcuronium

*Alphaxalone

Alphadolone

Alprazolam

Aluminium

Preparations

Amidopyrine

Aminoglutethimide Aminophylline

Amiodarone

*Amitriptyline

[Amphetamines]

*Amylobarbitone

Antipyrine

*Auranofin

*Aurothiomalate

Azapropazone

Baclofen

*Barbiturates

*Bemegride

Bendrofluazide

Benoxaprofen

Benzbromarone

[Benzylthiouracil]

[Bepridil]

Bromocriptine

Busulphan

*Butylscopolamine Captopril

*Carbamazepine

*Carbromal

*Carisoprodol

[Cefuroxime]

[Cephalexin]

[Cephalosporins]

[Cephradine]

[Chlorambucil]

*Chloramphenicol

*Chlordiazepoxide *Chlormezanone

Chloroform

*Chlorpropamide

Cinnarizine

Clemastine

[Clobazam]

[Clomipramine HCl]

[Clonazepam]

Clonidine HCl

*Clorazepate

Cocaine

[Colistin]

Co-trimoxazole

Cyclophosphamide

Cycloserine

Cyclosporin

Danazol

*Dapsone

Dexfenfluramine

Dextropropoxyphene Diazepam

*Dichloralphenazone *Diclofenac Na

Dienoestrol

Diethylpropion

Dihydralazine

*Dihydroergotamine

Diltiazem

*Dimenhydrinate

*Diphenhydramine

[Dothiepin HCl]

Doxycycline

*Dydrogesterone

*Econazole NO3

*Enalapril

Enflurane

*Ergot compounds

Ergometrine maleate Ergotamine tartrate

*Erythromycin

*Estramustine

Ethamsylate

*Ethanol

Ethionamide

*Ethosuximide

*Ethotoin

Etidocaine

Etomidate

Fenfluramine

*Flucloxacillin

*Flufenamic acid

Flunitrazepam

Flupenthixol

Flurazepam

*Frusemide

*Glibenclamide

*Glutethimide

*Glipizide

Gramicidin

*Griseofulvin

[Haloperidol]

*Halothane

*Hydantoins

*Hydralazine

*Hydrochlorothiazide *Hydroxyzine

Hyoscine

*Imipramine

Iproniazid

Isometheptene mucate

[Isoniazid]

Kebuzone

Ketoconazole

*Levonorgestrel

Lignocaine

*Lisinopril

Loprazolam

Loxapine

*Lynestrenol

Lysuride

Maleate

Maprotiline HCl

Mebeverine HCl

*Mecillinam

*Medroxyprogesterone

[Mefenamic acid]

Megestrol acetate

*Mephenytoin

Mepivacaine

*Meprobamate

Mercaptopurine

Mercury compounds

Mestranol

[Metapramine HCl]

Methamphetamine

Methohexitone

[Methotrexate][7]

Methoxyflurane

Methsuximide

*Methyldopa

*Methylsulphonal

*Methyprylone

Methysergide

*Metoclopramide

Metyrapone

Mianserin HCl

Miconazole

[Mifepristone]

Minoxidil

*Nandrolone

*Nalidixic acid

Natamycin

*Nandrolone

[Nicergoline]

*Nifedipine

*Nikethamide

Nitrazepam

*Nitrofurantoin

Nordazepam

Norethynodrel

*Norethisterone

[Nortriptyline]

Novobiocin

*Oral contraceptives

*Orphenadrine

Oxanamide

[Oxazepam]

Oxybutynin HCl

Oxycodone

*Oxymetazoline

*Oxyphenbutazone

Oxytetracycline

Paramethadione

Pargyline

*Pentazocine

Perhexiline

Phenacetin

Phenelzine

*Phenobarbitone

Phenoxybenzamine

*Phensuximide

Phenylhydrazine

*Phenytoin

Pipebuzone

Pipemidic

Acid

Piritramide

*Piroxicam

*Pivampicillin

*Pivmecillinam

Prazepam

Prenylamine

*Prilocaine

*Primidone

[Probenecid]

*Progesterone

Progabide

Promethazine

[Propanidid]

*Pyrazinamide

Pyrrocaine

Quinalbarbitone

Rifampicin

Simvastatin

Sodium aurothiomalate

Sodium oxybate

[Sodium valproate]

*Spironolactone

Stanozolol

Succinimides

*Sulfacetamide

*Sulfadiazine

*Sulfadimidine

*Sulfadoxine

*Sulfamethoxazole *Sulfasalazine

*Sulfonylureas

Sulfinpyrazone

Sulpiride

Sulthiame

Sultopride

*Tamoxifen

*Terfenadine

Tetrazepam

*Theophylline

*Thiopentone Na

Thioridazine

Tilidate

Tinidazole

*Tolazamide

*Tolbutamide

Tranylcypromine

Trazodone HCl

Trimethoprim

[Trimipramine]

Troxidone

Valproate

Valpromide

Veralipride

*Verapamil

*Vibramycin

Viloxazine HCl

[Vinblastine]

[Vincristine]

Zuclopenthixol

*These drugs have been associated with acute attacks of porphyria.

†Bracketed [] drugs are those in which experimental evidence of porphyringenicity is conflicting.

 

DDx

 

Workup

Laboratory Studies

The fundamental step in diagnosing acute intermittent porphyria (AIP) is to demonstrate increased urinary porphobilinogen secretion. If a patient has no increased secretion of porphobilinogen, (ie, a level of 0-4 mg/L during acute symptoms), acute porphyria is eliminated as a cause of the neurovisceral symptoms.[9, 10]

A spot urine test for porphobilinogen can rapidly provide the diagnosis; these tests detect porphobilinogen at levels greater than 6 mg/L. A common error is to order a urine porphyrin screen. Porphobilinogen, a porphyrin precursor, usually is not included in a urine porphyrin screen; it must be ordered specially.

AIP patients have elevated porphobilinogen between attacks. However, in some patients with a remote (years ago) history of attacks, porphobilinogen can return to the reference range.

Elevation of urine porphyrins, especially coporphobilinogen, is observed. This is caused by spontaneous polymerization of porphobilinogen in the urine. Nonspecific (1-2 times reference range) elevation of urine porphyrins, especially coproporphyrins, is common and is not specific for porphyria. Stool porphyrins are within the reference range or mildly elevated.

Other nonspecific signs in an attack of AIP include the following:

  • Hyponatremia
  • Syndrome of inappropriate secretion of antidiuretic hormone (SIADH)
  • Mild leukocytosis

Although a defective enzyme causes AIP, measuring the activity of porphobilinogen deaminase is of little value. Approximately 10% of AIP patients will have normal activity because a different form of the enzyme is expressed in the hematopoietic tissues. The vast majority of patients with the defective enzyme do not have any symptoms of the disease.

Imaging Studies

Imaging studies are usually not helpful. Abdominal films will sometimes demonstrate an ileus. Findings on cranial computed tomography (CT) scan are normal.

Brain magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans occasionally show signs of increased edema in patients having very severe attacks. In patients with seizures, MRI may demonstrate parieto-occipital gyriform lesions on T2-weighted images that are characteristic of posterior reversible encephalopathy syndrome (PRES).[11]

Other Tests

Attacks of AIP are clinically indistinguishable from those of hereditary coproporphyria and variegate porphyria, and there are few evidence-based diagnostic strategies for these conditions. Whatley et al conducted a retrospective analysis of 467 unrelated patients to determine the diagnostic sensitivity of mutation analysis of the HMBS, CPOX, or PPOX gene.[12] Findings included the following[12] :

  • In the presence of increased porphobilinogen excretion, plasma fluorescence scanning and the coproporphyrin ratio can identify the type of acute porphyria, with rare exceptions.

  • In cases in which the porphobilinogen, 5-aminolevulinate, and porphyrin analyses are within reference intervals and in which there is high suspicion of a previous illness caused by an acute porphyria, mutation analysis of the HMBS gene followed by porphobilinogen deaminase assay is an effective strategy for diagnosis or exclusion of AIP.

 

Treatment

Approach Considerations

The treatment goal for acute attacks of porphyria is to decrease heme synthesis and reduce the production of porphyrin precursors. High doses of glucose can inhibit heme synthesis and are useful for treatment of mild attacks. United Kingdom guidelines recommend administering 5% glucose in 0.9% sodium chloride solution, infused intravenously at a rate of 2 L/24 h. Intravenous glucose in water solutions (eg, dextrose 5% or 10% [D5W, D10W]), should be avoided as they may aggravate hyponatremia.[13]

Patients experiencing severe attacks, especially those with severe neurologic symptoms, should be treated with hematin in a dose of 4 mg/kg/d for 4 days. Once hematin is initiated, glucose therapy no longer has a role.[13]

Pain can be remarkably severe, and pain control is best achieved with narcotics. Laxatives and stool softeners should be administered with the narcotics to avert exacerbating existing constipation.

Symptomatic treatment also includes the use of beta-blockers to control tachycardia and prevent arrhythmia; beta- blockers, clonidine, or other recommended antihypertensives can also be used to treat hypertensive crisis. Nausea and vomiting can be controlled with olanzapine, lorazepam, or prochlorperazine.[14]

Treat seizures with gabapentin. Most classic antiseizure medicines are contraindicated, as they can lead to acute porphyria attacks.

A minority of patients with acute intermittent porphyria (AIP) experience recurrent attacks. In addition to avoidance of precipitating factors, treatment options that may be considered in those cases include gonadotrophin-releasing hormone analogues (for women with attacks related to their menstrual cycles) and prophylactic hematin infusions.[13]

Rarely, liver transplantation may be indicated for patients with intractable recurrent attacks that are life-threatening or severely affect quality of life. Liver transplantation cures AIP.[13]

A comprehensive rehabilitation program, overseen by a physiatrist, can help patients regain functional independence after attacks of AIP.[15]

Gene therapy for AIP is currently under investigation.  A phase I trial using intravenous delivery of normal PBGD genes to hepatocytes using an adeno-associated virus vector confirmed the safety and tolerability of this approach, but demonstrated the need for higher doses and/or more efficient vectors in order to achieve full clinical benefit.[16]  In an animal model, improved vector efficiency has been accomplished by insertion into the promoter of a short enhancer element that can induce transgene expression during exposure to endogenous and exogenous stimuli that can trigger attacks.[17]

Diet

The patient should receive a high-carbohydrate diet during the attack. If the patient is unable to eat, intravenous glucose should be administered. Between attacks, eating a balanced diet is more important than eating one rich in glucose.

 

Medication

Medication Summary

The goals of pharmacotherapy are to reduce morbidity and to prevent complications. Intravenous hematin is the treatment of choice, both for treatment of severe acute attacks and for prevention of recurrent attacks.[8]

Blood products

Hemin (Panhematin)

Provides negative feedback to the heme synthetic pathway and shuts down productions of porphyrins and porphyrin precursors.

 

Questions & Answers

Overview

What is acute intermittent porphyria (AIP)?

What is the pathophysiology of acute intermittent porphyria (AIP)?

What is the prevalence of acute intermittent porphyria (AIP) in the US?

What is the global prevalence of acute intermittent porphyria (AIP)?

What are the sexual predilections of acute intermittent porphyria (AIP)?

Which age groups have the highest prevalence of acute intermittent porphyria (AIP)?

Presentation

Which clinical history findings are characteristic of acute intermittent porphyria (AIP)?

Which physical findings are characteristic of acute intermittent porphyria (AIP)?

What causes acute intermittent porphyria (AIP)?

DDX

What are the risks of a delayed diagnosis of acute intermittent porphyria (AIP)?

What are the differential diagnoses for Acute Intermittent Porphyria?

Workup

What is the role of lab tests in the workup of acute intermittent porphyria (AIP)?

What is the role of imaging studies in the workup of acute intermittent porphyria (AIP)?

What is the role of genetic mutation analysis in the workup of acute intermittent porphyria (AIP)?

Treatment

How is acute intermittent porphyria (AIP) treated?

What is the role of gene therapy in the treatment of acute intermittent porphyria (AIP)?

Which dietary modifications are used in the treatment of acute intermittent porphyria (AIP)?

Medications

What is the role of medications in the treatment of acute intermittent porphyria (AIP)?

Which medications in the drug class Blood products are used in the treatment of Acute Intermittent Porphyria?