Children with phenylketonuria (PKU) must have all their foods weighed and measured to minimize their intake of phenylalanine (phe), lest it accumulate and cause brain
damage. Now, results from an international study led by Children's Hospital Boston
suggest that some patients can lower their phe levels with a drug called BH4
(tetrahydrobiopterin), potentially allowing them to ease up on their strict, very low
BH4 boosts the action of phenylalanine hydroxylase (PAH), the enzyme that breaks down phe, which is defective in patients with PKU. But BH4 doesn't work in everyone. "Some patients have such a severe genetic defect that they don't even make PAH, or the enzyme is so deformed that it doesn't function," notes Harvey Levy, MD, director of the
Maternal PKU Program at Children's.
The results of the Phase III trial, to be published soon, randomized 89 BH4 "responders" (patients with a 30 percent or greater drop in blood phe levels in a pilot study) to receive BH4 or a placebo. All patients were asked to continue their PKU diets. After six weeks, 54 percent of the BH4 group, versus 23 percent of the placebo group, had phe levels in the desired range (compared with 17 and 19 percent, respectively, before treatment).
BH4 could get FDA approval by the end of 2007. "We will then recommend that all
children and adults with PKU be tested for BH4 responsiveness," Dr. Levy predicts. "But we don't yet know how clinically significant the phe reduction is, or whether patients will continue to respond to BH4 as they get older."