Porphyrias (from Greek porphura meaning purple pigment; the name is probably derived from purple discoloration of some body fluids during the attack) are a heterogeneous group of rare disorders resulting from disturbance in the heme biosynthetic pathway leading to the abnormal accumulations of red and purple pigments called as porphyrins in the body. Heme, a component of hemoglobin, is synthesized through various steps as shown in figure. Each of the steps is catalyzed by a separate enzyme; if any of these steps fails (due to hereditary or acquired cause), precursors of heme (porphyrin intermediates) accumulate in blood, get deposited in skin and other organs, and excreted in urine and feces. Depending on the site of defect, different types of porphyrias are described with varying clinical features, severity, and the nature of accumulated porphyrin.
Porphyria has been offered as a possible explanation for the medieval tales of vampires and werewolves; this is because of the number of similarities between the behavior of persons suffering from porphyria and the folklore (avoiding sunlight, mutilation of skin on exposure to sunlight, red teeth, psychiatric disturbance, and drinking of blood to obtain heme).
Porphyrias are often missed or wrongly diagnosed as many of them are not associated with definite physical findings, screening tests may yield false-negative results, diagnostic criteria are poorly defined and mild disorders produce an enzyme assay result within ‘normal’ range.
Heme is mainly required in bone marrow (for hemoglobin synthesis) and in liver (for cytochromes). Therefore, porphyrias are divided into erythropoietic and hepatic types, depending on the site of expression of disease. Hepatic porphyrias mainly affect the nervous system, while erythropoietic porphyrias primarily affect the skin. Porphyrias are also classified into acute and nonacute (or cutaneous) types depending on clinical presentation.
Inheritance of porphyrias may be autosomal dominant or recessive. Most acute porphyrias are inherited in an autosomal dominant manner (i.e. inheritance of one abnormal copy of gene). Therefore, the activity of the deficient enzyme is 50%. When the level of heme falls in the liver due to some cause, activity of ALA synthase is stimulated leading to increase in the levels of heme precursors up to the point of enzyme defect. Increased levels of heme precursors cause symptoms of acute porphyria. When the heme level returns back to normal, symptoms subside.
Accumulation of porphyrin precursors can occur in lead poisoning due to inhibition of enzyme aminolevulinic acid dehydratase in heme biosynthetic pathway. This can mimick acute intermittent porphyria.