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Clin Biochem. 2000 Jul;33(5):387-91.

Erythrocyte protoporphyrins in hepatitis C viral infection.

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  • 1Institute of Clinical Chemistry, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universit├Ąt Munich, Klinikum Grosshadern, 81366 Munich, Germany.



Protoporphyrin is the immediate precursor of the heme molecule. Due to a spillover from hemaotopoietic tissue it is regularly found in small amounts in erythrocytes and excreted into the bile. In hereditary erythropoietic protoporphyria excess protoporphyrin accumulates and can cause severe liver damage both by crystallization and induction of oxidative stress. The aim of this investigation was to study protoporphyrin concentrations in other liver disorders.


Erythrocyte protoporphyrin and zinc protoporphyrin concentrations were studied in 50 patients with chronic hepatitis C infection and various degrees of liver damage. High-performance liquid chromatographic analysis with fluorescence detection was used.


Erythrocyte protoporphyrin was increased in 32% of the patients studied; in 12 patients up to two-fold higher than the maximum of the reference range, in 4 up to three-fold higher (median concentration 98 nmol/L, interquartile range 68-142; maximum 379 nmol/L (reference range: <125 nmol/L)). In 6 of the 10 patients in the subgroup with signs of severe liver dysfunction (decreased serum albumin and prolonged thromboplastin time, elevated serum bilirubin), protoporphyrin was elevated. Erythrocyte zinc protoporphyrin was increased in 7 cases out of all 50 studied; in these seven cases, erythrocyte protoporphyrin was also elevated (median concentration of zinc protoporphyrin in the whole study group: 232 nmol/L, interquartile range 182-342; maximum 827 nmol/L (reference range <464 nmol/L).


Elevated erythrocyte protoporphrin levels are frequently found in patients with advanced chronic hepatitis C infection. Because protoporphyrin is well known to be hepatotoxic, these findings warrant further investigation.

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