Amino Acid Disorders Screening

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Amino Acid Disorders Screening


Amino acid disorder screening checks for inherited disorders in amino acid metabolism. Tests are most commonly done on newborns. Two tests are available, one using a blood sample and the other a urine sample.


Amino acid disorder screening is done in newborns, and sometimes children and adults, to detect inborn errors in metabolism of amino acids. Twenty of the 100 known amino acids are the main building blocks for human proteins. Proteins regulate every aspect of cellular function. Of these 20 amino acids, ten are not made by the body and must be acquired through diet. Congenital (present at birth) enzyme deficiencies that affect amino acid metabolism or congenital abnormalities in the amino acid transport system of the kidneys creates a condition called aminoaciduria.

Screening is especially important in newborns. Some congenital amino acid metabolic defects cause mental retardation that can prevented with prompt treatment of the newborn. One of the best known examples of this is phenylketonuria (PKU). This is an genetic error in metabolism of phenylalanine, an amino acid found in milk. Individuals with PKU do not produce the enzyme necessary to break down phenylalanine.

PKU occurs in about one out of 16,000 live births in the United States, but is more prevalent in caucasians and less prevalent in Ashkenazi Jews and African Americans. Newborns in the United States are routinely screened for PKU by a blood test.

There are two types of aminoacidurias. Primary or overflow aminoaciduria results from deficiencies in the enzymes necessary to metabolize amino acids. Overflow aminoaciduria is best detected by a blood plasma test.

Secondary or renal aminoaciduria occurs because of a congenital defect in the amino acid transport system in the tubules of the kidneys. This produces increased amino acids in the urine. Blood and urine test in combination are used to determine if the aminoaciduria is of the overflow or renal type. Urine tests are also used to monitor specific amino acid disorders.

Newborns are screened for amino acid disorders. Young children with acidosis (accumulation of acid in the body), severe vomiting and diarrhea, or urine with an abnormal color or odor, are also screened with a urine test for specific amino acid levels.


Both blood and urine tests are simple tests that can be done in a doctor's office or clinic. These tests can be done on even the youngest patients.


Two types of amino acid screening tests are used together to diagnose amino acid disorders.

Blood plasma screening

In the blood test, a medical technician draws a small amount of blood from a baby's heel. The procedure is rapid and relatively painless. Total time for the test is less than ten minutes. The blood is sent to a laboratory where results will be available in about two days.

Urine test

In the urine test, the patient is asked to urinate into a collecting cup. For an infant, the urine is collected in a pediatric urine collector. The process is painless. The length of time the test takes is determined by how long it takes the patient to urinate. Results also take about two days.

Both these tests use thin layer chromatography to separate the amino acids present. Using this technique, the amino acids form a characteristic patterns on a glass plate coated with a thin layer of silica gel. This pattern is then compared to the normal pattern to determine if there are abnormalities.


Before the blood test, the patient must not eat or drink for four hours. Failure to fast will alter the results of the test.

The patient should eat and drink normally before the urine test. Some drugs may affect the results of the urine test. The technician handling the urine sample should be informed of any medications the patient is taking. Mothers of breastfeeding infants should report any medications they are taking, since these can pass from mother to child in breast milk.


The blood screening is normally done first. Depending on the results, it is followed by the urine test. It takes both tests to distinguish between overflow and renal aminoaciduria. Also, if the results are abnormal, a 24-hour urine test is performed along with other tests to determine the levels of specific amino acids. In the event of abnormal results, there are many other tests that will be performed to determine the specific amino acid involved in the abnormality.


There are no particular risks associated with either of these tests. Occasionally minor bruising may occur at the site where the blood was taken.

Normal results

The pattern of amino acid banding on the thin layer chromatography plates will be normal.

Abnormal results

The blood plasma amino acid pattern is abnormal in overflow aminoaciduria and is normal in renal aminoaciduria. The pattern is abnormal in the urine test, suggesting additional tests need to be done to determine which amino acids are involved. In addition to PKU, a variety of other amino acid metabolism disorders can be detected by these tests, including tyrosinosis, histidinemia, maple syrup urine disease, hypervalinemia, hyperprolinemia, and homocystinuria.


Amino acid An organic compound composed of both an amino group and an acidic carboxyl group; amino acids are the basic building blocks of proteins.

Aminoaciduria The abnormal presence of amino acids in the urine.

Chromatography A family of laboratory techniques that separate mixtures of chemicals into their individual components.

Enzyme A biological catalyst that increases the rate of a chemical reaction without being used up in the reaction.

Metabolism The sum of all the chemical and energy reactions that take place in the human body.



Association for Neuro-Metabolic Disorders. 5223 Brookfield Lane, Sylvania, OH 43560-1809. (419) 885-1497.

Children's PKU Network (CPN). 3790 Via De La Valle, Ste 120, Del Mar, CA 92014. (800) 377-6677.

National Phenylketonuria Foundation. 6301 Tejas Drive, Pasadena, TX 77503. (713) 487-4802.