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J Clin Invest. 1977 Sep; 60(3): 716–723.
PMCID: PMC372417

Deficiency of Carnitine in Cachectic Cirrhotic Patients


Carnitine is synthesized from lysine and methionine. In the rat, inadequate intake of either of these essential amino acids causes carnitine depletion. Inasmuch as protein deficiency is common in the hospital population, we have investigated the possible occurrence of nosocomial carnitine deficiency. Fasting serum carnitine concentration was measured in 16 normal and 247 patients in 16 disease groups. Normal range of carnitine was 55-103 μM. Only the cirrhotic group showed significant (P < 0.05) hypocarnitinemia. 14 of 36 hospitalized cirrhotics had subnormal values for serum carnitine. The creatinine/height index, midarm muscle circumference, and triceps skin-fold thickness indicated protein-calorie starvation in the 14 hypocarnitinemic liver patients. In six of the hypocarnitinemic cirrhotics (average serum level 50% of normal), spontaneous dietary intakes of carnitine, lysine, and methionine were measured and found to be only 5-15% as great as in six normocarnitinemic, healthy controls. When these six cirrhotic and six normal subjects were given the same lysine-rich, methionine-rich, and carnitine-free nutritional intake, the normals maintained normal serum carnitine levels and excreted 100 μmol/day, whereas the cirrhotics' serum level fell to 25% of normal, and urinary excretion declined to 15 μmol/day.

Seven hypocarnitinemic cirrhotics died. Postmortem concentrations of carnitine in liver, muscle, heart, kidney, and brain averaged only one-fourth to one-third those in corresponding tissues of eight normally nourished nonhepatic patients who died after an acute illness of a 1-3-day duration.

These data show that carnitine depletion is common in patients hospitalized for advanced cirrhosis, and that it results from three factors: substandard intake of dietary carnitine; substandard intake of lysine and methionine, the precursors for endogenous carnitine synthesis; and loss of capacity to synthesize carnitine from lysine and methionine.

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Selected References

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