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Ammonia toxicity and its prevention in inherited defects of the urea cycle.

The urea cycle is the final pathway for removal of surplus nitrogen from the body, and the major route in humans for detoxification of ammonia. The full complement of enzymes is expressed only in liver. Inherited deficiencies of urea cycle enzymes lead to hyperammonaemia, which causes brain damage. Severe defects present with hyperammonaemic crises in neonates. Equally devastating episodes may occur in previously asymptomatic adults with mild defects, most often X-linked ornithine transcarbamylase (OTC) deficiency. Several mechanisms probably contribute to pathogenesis. Treatment aims to reduce plasma ammonia quickly, reduce production of waste nitrogen, dispose of waste nitrogen using alternative pathways to the urea cycle and replace arginine. These therapies have increased survival and probably improve the neurological outcome. Arginine, sodium benzoate, sodium phenylbutyrate and, less often, sodium phenylacetate are used. Long-term correction is achieved by liver transplantation. Gene therapy for OTC deficiency is effective in animals, and work is ongoing to improve persistence and safety.

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