Phenylketonuria (PKU) is a rare but potentially serious inherited disorder.
Our bodies break down protein in foods like meat and fish into amino acids, which are the “building blocks” of protein.
These amino acids are then used to make our own proteins. Any amino acids that aren’t needed are broken down further and removed from the body.
People with PKU can’t break down the amino acid phenylalanine, which then builds up in the blood and brain. This can lead to brain damage.
At around 5 days old, babies are offered newborn blood spot screening to check if they have PKU or a number of other conditions. This involves pricking your baby’s heel to collect drops of blood to test.
If PKU is confirmed, treatment will be given straight away to reduce the risk of serious complications. Treatment includes a special diet and regular blood tests.
With early diagnosis and the correct treatment, the majority of children with PKU are able to live healthy lives.
About 1 in 10,000 babies born in the UK has PKU.
Symptoms of PKU
PKU doesn’t usually cause any symptoms if treatment is started early.
Without treatment, PKU can damage the brain and nervous system, which can lead to learning disabilities.
Other symptoms of untreated PKU include:
- behavioural difficulties – such as frequent temper tantrums and episodes of self-harm
- fairer skin, hair and eyes than siblings without the condition (phenylalanine is involved in the body’s production of melanin, the pigment responsible for skin and hair color)
- recurrent vomiting
- jerking movements in arms and legs
- musty smell on the breath, skin and urine
The main treatment for PKU is a low-protein diet that completely avoids high-protein foods (such as meat, eggs and dairy products) and controls the intake of many other foods, such as potatoes and cereals.
In addition, people with PKU must take an amino acid supplement to ensure they’re getting all of the nutrients required for normal growth and good health.
There are also a number of specially designed low-protein versions of popular products (such as flour, rice and pasta) specifically designed for people with PKU and related conditions to incorporate into their diets. Many of these are available on prescription.
If a high phenylalanine level is confirmed, a baby will immediately be started on a low-protein diet and amino acid supplements.
Phenylalanine levels in the blood are regularly monitored by collecting blood from a finger prick on to a special card and sending it to a laboratory.
Your dietitian will draw up a detailed dietary plan for your child that can be revised as your child grows and their needs change.
As long as a person with PKU sticks to a low-protein diet throughout childhood and their phenylalanine levels stay within certain limits, they’ll remain well and their natural intelligence will be unaffected.
People with PKU also have to avoid food products that contain aspartame, as it’s converted into phenylalanine in the body.
Aspartame is a sweetener found in:
- sugar substitutes – such as artificial sweeteners often used in tea and coffee
- diet versions of fizzy drinks
- chewing gum
- squashes and cordials
- some alcopops
All food products that contain aspartame or a related product should be clearly labelled.
There are also medications that contain aspartame, such as some children’s cold and flu remedies.
It’s a legal requirement for any medication that contains aspartame to state it on the patient information leaflet that comes with the medication.
Regular blood tests
A child with phenylketonuria will need regular blood tests to measure levels of phenylalanine in their blood and assess how well they’re responding to treatment.
Only a drop of blood is needed, and it can be collected at home and sent to the hospital by post.
You may be able to have training so you can carry out your child’s blood tests, or be able to test yourself if you have PKU. This will make testing more convenient.
It’s recommended that children who are:
- 6 months of age or younger should have their blood tested once a week
- between 6 months and 4 years of age should have their blood tested once every 2 weeks
- over 4 years of age should have their blood tested once a month
Someone with PKU will usually need to have regular blood tests throughout their life.
How PKU is inherited
The genetic cause (mutation) responsible for PKU is passed on by the parents, who are usually carriers and don’t have any symptoms of the condition themselves.
The way this mutation is passed on is known as autosomal recessive inheritance. This means a baby needs to receive 2 copies of the mutated gene to develop the condition – 1 from their mother and 1 from their father.
If the baby only receives 1 affected gene, they’ll just be a carrier of PKU.
If you’re a carrier of the altered gene and you have a baby with a partner who’s also a carrier, your baby has:
- a 25% chance of inheriting the condition
- a 50% chance of being a carrier of PKU
- a 25% chance of receiving a pair of normal genes
Adults with PKU
Many adults with PKU find they function best while on a low protein diet. The current advice is for people with PKU to remain on a low-protein diet for life.
Unlike in young children, there isn’t any evidence yet that high phenylalanine levels cause any permanent brain damage in adults with PKU.
Some adults with PKU may have higher phenylalanine levels because they find it difficult to follow the low-protein diet or have returned to a normal diet.
As a result, they may find they don’t function as well. For example, they may lose concentration or have a slower reaction time.
These adverse effects can usually be reversed by going back on to a stricter diet to bring the phenylalanine levels down again.
Anyone who returned to a normal diet should still be supported by their clinicians and have a regular follow-up to monitor their condition for any complications that might arise.
For women with PKU, it’s essential that they return to a strict diet if they’re considering becoming pregnant, as high phenylalanine levels can harm an unborn child.
PKU and pregnancy
Women with PKU have to take particular care during pregnancy, as high levels of phenylalanine can damage the unborn baby.
Provided that phenylalanine levels are strictly controlled during pregnancy, problems can be avoided and there’s no reason why a woman with PKU shouldn’t be able to have a normal, healthy baby.
It’s recommended that all women with PKU plan their pregnancies carefully. You should aim to follow a strict diet and monitor your blood twice a week before becoming pregnant.
It’s best to try to conceive once phenylalanine levels are within the target range for pregnancy.
During pregnancy, you’ll be asked to provide blood samples 3 times a week and will be in frequent contact with your dietitian.
As soon as your baby is born, phenylalanine control can be relaxed and there’s no reason why you can’t breastfeed your baby.
Contact your PKU doctors and dietitians as soon as possible if you become pregnant when your phenylalanine levels aren’t adequately controlled.
If your phenylalanine levels can be brought under control within the first few weeks of your pregnancy, the risk of damage to the baby should be small. But your pregnancy will need to be monitored very carefully.
Information about you
If you or your child has PKU, your clinical team will pass information about you on to the National Congenital Anomaly and Rare Diseases Registration Service (NCARDRS).
This helps scientists look for better ways to prevent and treat this condition. You can opt out of the register at any time.