Metalloporphyrins for treatment of unconjugated hyperbilirubinemia in neonates

Metalloporphyrins may reduce very high levels of jaundice in newborn babies, but more research is required on safety and to compare it with other treatments. Jaundice is very common in newborn babies, and is caused by the liver producing too much bilirubin, a yellow-coloured bile substance. A very high level of bilirubin can damage the developing brain, and is treated with phototherapy (light therapy) or exchange transfusions. Metalloporphyrins are drugs that can prevent the formation of bilirubin, but they might also cause photosensitivity (sensitivity to light) and anaemia (decreased hemoglobin levels in the blood). The review of trials found some evidence that metalloporphyrins might be able to reduce bilirubin, but more research is needed on short and long-term effects and to compare it with other treatments.

Authors' conclusions: 

Treatment of neonatal unconjugated hyperbilirubinemia with metalloporphyrins may reduce neonatal bilirubin levels and decrease the need for phototherapy and hospitalization. There is no evidence to support or refute the possibility that treatment with a metalloporphyrin decreases the risk of neonatal kernicterus or of long-term neurodevelopmental impairment due to bilirubin encephalopathy. There is no evidence to support or refute the possibility that cutaneous photosensitivity is increased with metalloporphyrin treatment. Routine treatment of neonatal unconjugated hyperbilirubinemia with a metalloporphyrin cannot be recommended at present.

Read the full abstract...

Metalloporphyrins are heme analogues that inhibit heme oxygenase, the rate-limiting enzyme in the catabolism of heme to bilirubin. By preventing the formation of bilirubin, they have the potential to reduce the level of unconjugated bilirubin in neonates and thereby reduce the risk of neonatal encephalopathy and long term neurodevelopmental impairment from bilirubin toxicity to the nervous system.


1. To determine the efficacy of metalloporphyrins in reducing bilirubin levels, reducing the need for phototherapy or exchange transfusion and reducing the incidence of bilirubin encephalopathy in neonates with unconjugated hyperbilirubinemia when compared to placebo, phototherapy or exchange transfusion.

2. To determine the nature and frequency of side effects of metalloporphyrins when used to treat unconjugated hyperbilirubinemia in neonates.

Search strategy: 

We searched Medline (1966 - January 2003) and the Cochrane Controlled Trials Register (CCTR) from the Cochrane Library (2003, issue 1). We hand-searched the articles cited in each publication obtained. We hand searched the abstracts of the Society for Pediatric Research (USA) (published in Pediatric Research) for the years 1985 - 2002.

Selection criteria: 

We included only randomized controlled studies, in which preterm or term neonates (age 28 days of life or less) with unconjugated hyperbilirubinemia due to any cause were randomly allocated to receive a metalloporphyrin in the treatment arm(s), and to receive a placebo or a conventional treatment (phototherapy or exchange transfusion) or no treatment for hyperbilirubinemia in the comparison arm(s). Any preparation of metalloporphyrin could be used, in any form, by any route, at any dose.

Data collection and analysis: 

Two authors extracted data independently. Data were entered into Revman by one author and checked by a second author. Prespecified subgroup analyses were planned in term versus preterm infants, hemolytic versus non-hemolytic causes of jaundice and according to the type of metalloporphyrin used.

Main results: 

Three small studies, enrolling a total of 170 infants, were eligible for inclusion in this review. None blinded intervention or outcome assessment. In all three studies some patients were excluded after randomization. Metalloporphyrin-treated infants appeared to have short-term benefits compared to controls, including a lower maximum plasma bilirubin level in one study, a lower frequency of severe hyperbilirubinemia in one study, a decreased need for phototherapy, fewer plasma bilirubin measurements and a shorter duration of hospitalization. None of the enrolled infants required an exchange transfusion in the two studies that described this outcome. None of the studies reported on neonatal kernicterus, death, long-term neurodevelopmental outcomes or iron deficiency anemia. Though a small number of metalloporphyrin-treated as well as control infants developed a photosensitivity rash, the trials were too small to rule out an increase in the risk of photosensitivity or other adverse effects from metalloporphyrin treatment. No subgroup analyses were possible due to the small number of included trials.