Erythropoietic protoporphyria is a disorder characterized by ferrochelatase enzyme deficiency in all tissues. Ferrochelatase puts the iron in protoporphyrin to make haem.

Other enzyme deficiencies such as lactose intolerance are treated with enzyme supplementation. Why is porphyria not treated with ferrochelatase supplementation?

2 Answers 2


Ferrochelatase is an enzyme found within cells, specifically in the mitochondria.

Lactase is a secreted enzyme, its function occurs outside cells (specifically, in the digestive cavity).

If you want to replace a secreted enzyme, the process is fairly simple: you just need to add it to the solution it would be secreted into. You can skip all the steps that came before secretion.

If you want to replace an internal enzyme, you would need to not just add it to the space outside of cells, you need some mechanism to get it inside cells. That's the hard part. Cells have complicated machinery for bringing specific molecules and ions into cells and keeping others out; that's pretty much the essence of all biology. For something that is normally produced internally and trafficked internally to where it needs to be, there is no already available machinery for getting that enzyme from outside the cell to inside the cell. If you were to build this machinery artificially, you'd still be stuck without a way to get your machinery into the cells in the first place.

Genetic engineering may be an alternative in some cases, I don't know if it's been studied with respect to this specific disorder. Viruses are an example of some machinery that can get things inside of cells that aren't normally supposed to be there; genetic engineering would involve using viral machinery to get DNA into a cell that contains the pattern required to produce a protein that is otherwise missing, so it can be assembled where it needs to be.


Erythropoietic protoporphyria (EPP) is indeed caused by a deficiency of the enzyme ferrochelatase, which is crucial in the biosynthesis of heme. Despite the logical approach of enzyme supplementation for treating enzyme deficiencies (as seen in conditions like lactose intolerance), ferrochelatase supplementation is not used for several reasons:

Enzyme Delivery Challenges: Ferrochelatase is a large, complex enzyme that functions inside the mitochondria of cells. Delivering such an enzyme to the correct cellular and subcellular location is highly challenging. Enzymes like lactase, used to treat lactose intolerance, function in the digestive tract where they can be easily delivered orally and act locally.

Stability and Functionality: Ferrochelatase needs to be stable and functional in the cellular environment. Enzymes delivered from outside the body often degrade quickly or lose functionality before reaching their target.

Immune Response: The immune system might recognize the externally administered ferrochelatase as a foreign protein, leading to immune reactions that could reduce the enzyme’s effectiveness or cause adverse effects.

Gene Therapy Potential: Current research into treating EPP focuses more on gene therapy approaches. This involves correcting the underlying genetic defect by introducing a functional copy of the ferrochelatase gene into the patient's cells, which can provide a more sustainable and potentially curative treatment. Gene therapy targets the root cause of the deficiency rather than trying to supplement the enzyme directly.

Other Management Strategies: Treatments for EPP often focus on managing symptoms and avoiding triggers. For example, patients are advised to avoid sunlight to prevent painful photosensitivity reactions. There are also pharmacological treatments like afamelanotide, which increases melanin production and provides some protection against light sensitivity.

While enzyme supplementation works well for certain enzyme deficiencies, the complexities associated with ferrochelatase’s delivery, stability, functionality, and potential immune response, as well as the focus on gene therapy, make direct enzyme supplementation an impractical approach for treating erythropoietic protoporphyria.

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