What is phenylketonuria?
Phenylketonuria (PKU) is a rare genetic condition that causes an amino acid called phenylalanine to build up in the body. Amino acids are the building blocks of protein. Phenylalanine is found in all proteins and some artificial sweeteners.
Phenylalanine hydroxylase is an enzyme your body uses to convert phenylalanine into tyrosine, which your body needs to create neurotransmitters such as epinephrine, norepinephrine, and dopamine. PKU is caused by a defect in the gene that helps create phenylalanine hydroxylase. When this enzyme is missing, your body can’t break down phenylalanine. This causes a buildup of phenylalanine in your body.
Babies in the United States are screened for PKU shortly after birth. The condition is uncommon in this country, only affecting about 1 in 10,000 to 15,000 newborns each year. The severe signs and symptoms of PKU are rare in the United States, as early screening allows treatment to begin soon after birth. Early diagnosis and treatment can help relieve symptoms of PKU and prevent brain damage.
PKU symptoms can range from mild to severe. The most severe form of this disorder is known as classic PKU. An infant with classic PKU may appear normal for the first few months of their life. If the baby isn’t treated for PKU during this time, they’ll start to develop the following symptoms:
- tremors, or trembling and shaking
- stunted growth
- skin conditions such as eczema
- a musty odor of their breath, skin, or urine
If PKU isn’t diagnosed at birth and treatment isn’t started quickly, the disorder can cause:
- irreversible brain damage and intellectual disabilities within the first few months of life
- behavioral problems and seizures in older children
A less severe form of PKU is called variant PKU or non-PKU hyperphenylalaninemia. This occurs when the baby has too much phenylalanine in their body. Infants with this form of the disorder may have only mild symptoms, but they’ll need to follow a special diet to prevent intellectual disabilities.
Once a specific diet and other necessary treatments are started, symptoms start to diminish. People with PKU who properly manage their diet usually don’t show any symptoms.
PKU is an inherited condition caused by a defect in the PAH gene. The PAH gene helps create phenylalanine hydroxylase, the enzyme responsible for breaking down phenylalanine. A dangerous buildup of phenylalanine can occur when someone eats high-protein foods, such as eggs and meat.
Both parents must pass on a defective version of the PAH gene for their child to inherit the disorder. If just one parent passes on an altered gene, the child won’t have any symptoms, but they’ll be a carrier of the gene.
Since the 1960s, hospitals in the United States have routinely screened newborns for PKU by taking a blood sample. A doctor uses a needle or lancet to take a few drops of blood from your baby’s heel to test for PKU and other genetic disorders.
The screening test is performed when the baby is one to two days old and still in the hospital. If you don’t deliver your baby in a hospital, you’ll need to schedule the screening test with your doctor.
Additional tests may be performed to confirm the initial results. These tests search for the presence of the PAH gene mutation that causes PKU. These tests are often done within six weeks after birth.
If a child or adult shows symptoms of PKU, such as developmental delays, the doctor will order a blood test to confirm the diagnosis. This test involves taking a sample of blood and analyzing it for the presence of the enzyme needed to break down phenylalanine.
People with PKU can relieve their symptoms and prevent complications by following a special diet and by taking medications.
The main way to treat PKU is to eat a special diet that limits foods containing phenylalanine. Infants with PKU may be fed breast milk. They usually also need to consume a special formula known as Lofenalac. When your baby is old enough to eat solid foods, you need to avoid letting them eat foods high in protein. These foods include:
To make sure that they still receive an adequate amount of protein, children with PKU need to consume PKU formula. It contains all the amino acids that the body needs, except for phenylalanine. There are also certain low-protein, PKU-friendly foods that can be found at specialty health stores.
People with PKU will have to follow these dietary restrictions and consume PKU formula throughout their lives to manage their symptoms.
It’s important to note that PKU meal plans vary person to person. People with PKU need to work closely with a doctor or dietitian to maintain a proper balance of nutrients while limiting their intake of phenylalanine. They also have to monitor their phenylalanine levels by keeping records of the amount of phenylalanine in the foods they eat throughout the day.
Some state legislatures have enacted bills that provide some insurance coverage for the foods and formulas necessary to treat PKU. Check with your state legislature and medical insurance company to find out if this coverage is available for you. If you don’t have medical insurance, you can check with your local health departments to see what options are available to help you afford PKU formula.
The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently approved sapropterin (Kuvan) for the treatment of PKU. Sapropterin helps lower phenylalanine levels. This medication must be used in combination with a special PKU meal plan. However, it doesn’t work for everyone with PKU. It’s most effective in children with mild cases of PKU.
Woman with PKU may be at risk of complications, including miscarriage, if they don’t follow a PKU meal plan during their childbearing years. There’s also a chance that the unborn baby will be exposed to high levels of phenylalanine. This can lead to various problems in the baby, including:
- intellectual disabilities
- heart defects
- delayed growth
- low birth weight
- an abnormally small head
These signs aren’t immediately noticeable in a newborn, but a doctor will perform tests to check for signs of any medical concerns your child may have.
The long-term outlook for people with PKU is very good if they follow a PKU meal plan closely and shortly after birth. When diagnosis and treatment are delayed, brain damage may occur. This can lead to intellectual disabilities by the child’s first year of life. Untreated PKU can also eventually cause:
- delayed development
- behavioral and emotional problems
- neurological problems, such as tremors and seizures
PKU is a genetic condition, so it can’t be prevented. However, an enzyme assay can be done for people who plan on having children. An enzyme assay is a blood test that can determine whether someone carries the defective gene that causes PKU. The test may also be done during pregnancy to screen unborn babies for PKU.
If you have PKU, you can prevent symptoms by following your PKU meal plan throughout your life.