Aspartate Aminotransferase Test
The Aspartate aminotransferase test measures levels of AST, an enzyme released into the blood when certain organs or tissues, particularly the liver and heart, are injured. Aspartate aminotransferase (AST) is also known as serum glutamic oxaloacetic transaminase (SGOT).
The determination of AST levels aids primarily in the diagnosis of liver disease. In the past, the AST test was used to diagnose heart attack (myocardial infarction or MI) but more accurate blood tests have largely replaced it for cardiac purposes.
AST is determined by analysis of a blood sample, usually from taken from a venipuncture site at the bend of the elbow.
AST is found in the heart, liver, skeletal muscle, kidney, pancreas, spleen, lung, red blood cells, and brain tissue. When disease or injury affects these tissues, the cells are destroyed and AST is released into the bloodstream. The amount of AST is directly related to the number of cells affected by the disease or injury, but the level of elevation depends on the length of time that the blood is tested after the injury. Serum AST levels become elevated eight hours after cell injury, peak at 24-36 hours, and return to normal in three to seven days. If the cellular injury is chronic (ongoing), AST levels will remain elevated.
One of the most important uses for AST determination has formerly been in the diagnosis of a heart attack, or MI. AST can assist in determining the timing and extent of a recent MI, although it is less specific than creatine phosphokinase (CPK), CKMB, myglobin, troponins, and lactic dehydrogenase (LDH). Assuming no further cardiac injury occurs, the AST level rises within 6-10 hours after an acute attack, peaks at 12-48 hours, and returns to normal in three to four days. Myocardial injuries such as angina (chest pain) or pericarditis (inflammation of the pericardium, the membrane around the heart) do not increase AST levels.
AST is also a valuable aid in the diagnosis of liver disease. Although not specific for liver disease, it can be used in combination with other enzymes to monitor the course of various liver disorders. Chronic, silent hepatitis (hepatitis C) is sometimes the cause of elevated AST. In alcoholic hepatitis, caused by excessive alcohol ingestion, AST values are usually moderately elevated; in acute viral hepatitis, AST levels can rise to over 20 times normal. Acute extrahepatic (outside the liver) obstruction (e.g. gallstone), produces AST levels that can quickly rise to 10 times normal, and then rapidly fall. In cases of cirrhosis, the AST level is related to the amount of active inflammation of the liver. Determination of AST also assists in early recognition of toxic hepatitis that results from exposure to drugs toxic to the liver, like acetaminophen and cholesterol lowering medications.
The physician may require discontinuation of any drugs that might affect the test. These types include such drugs as antihypertensives (for treatment of high blood pressure), coumarin-type anticoagulants (blood-thinning drugs), digitalis, erythromycin (an antibiotic), oral contraceptives, and opiates, among others. The patient may also need to cut back on strenuous activities temporarily, because exercise can also elevate AST for a day or two.
Risks for this test are minimal, but may include slight bleeding from the blood-drawing site, fainting or feeling lightheaded after venipuncture, or hematoma (blood accumulating under the puncture site).
Normal ranges for the AST are laboratory-specific, but can range from 3-45 units/L (units per liter).
Striking elevations of AST (400-4000 units/L) are found in almost all forms of acute hepatic necrosis, such as viral hepatitis and carbon tetrachloride poisoning. In alcoholics, even moderate doses of the analgesic acetaminophen have caused extreme elevations (1,960-29,700 units/L). Moderate rises of AST are seen in jaundice, cirrhosis, and metastatic carcinoma. Approximately 80% of patients with infectious mononucleosis show elevations in the range of 100-600 units/L.
Jacobs, David S., et al. Laboratory Test Handbook. 4th ed. New York: Lexi-Comp Inc., 1996.
Pagana, Kathleen Deska. Mosby's Manual of Diagnostic and Laboratory Tests. St. Louis: Mosby, Inc., 1998.
Janis O. Flores
Cirrhosis—Disease of the liver caused by chronic damage to its cells.
Myocardial infarction—Commonly known as a heart attack. Sudden death of part of the heart muscle, characterized, in most cases, by severe, unremitting chest pain.