A Dose of Vampire’s Medicine

Disfigured blood cell enzymes may explain away the vampire myth and inspire revolutionary new treatments
by Susan Bustos
18 December 2006 Comments 6 Comments

A Dose of Vampire’s Medicine
Red teeth, widows peak, pale skin, and a thirst for blood are all symptoms of porphyrias sufferers.
A Dose of Vampire’s Medicine   Print A Dose of Vampire’s Medicine   Email A Dose of Vampire’s Medicine   Digg

Related Books

The night before Hallowe’en seems like the perfect time to talk vampires, blood, and burning flesh. But the discussion at the October 30th Royal Canadian Institute lecture was much less macabre than it was medical. David Dolphin, an organic chemist at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, believes that a class of rare genetic diseases called porphyrias may explain the legends that inspired Dracula and his kin. What’s more, harnessing the power of these deadly diseases might be the key to immortality - or a cure for cancer.

Dolphin has spent years studying porphyrins, ring-shaped organic molecules that bind with metals. The most famous porphyrin rings are those found in the heme group - the red blood cell pigment responsible for catching and releasing oxygen. People with porphyria diseases have deformed hemes. There are seven main types of the disease, which range in rarity from one in 25,000 people to less than one in a million.

In sufferers, lone porphyrins build up in various tissues, especially the skin. They lie in wait like deadly little time-bombs that detonate when exposed to light by generating vicious free radicals which destroy the cells that house them. This violent reaction has led to porphryins’ nickname, “the pigments of death.” It might also explain vampires’ tendency to stray outdoors only at night, lest they burst into flames in the midday sun.

So were vampires really the blood-sucking undead of legend, or were they medically misunderstood in their time? Dr. Dolphin admits it’s only a theory but drinking blood would have allowed them to absorb more heme, which feeds back to ease up on excess porphyrin production. In fact, porphyria patients today get heme injections. Porphyrin build-up in teeth can make them appear reddish, possibly like bloody fangs. The disease is even associated with excess hair growth, especially on the forehead, possibly leading to the vampire’s trademark widow’s peak. The aversion to garlic may be explained by the fact that some chemicals in the plant, such as diallyl sulfone, increase the production of porphyrins in the body. Of course, he points out, that a wooden stake through the heart would kill anyone. As for the lack of a mirror image, Dolphin joked, “I’m a chemist, so I’ll leave that to the physicists.”

While the medical truth behind the vampire myth may always be a mystery, Dolphin is using the very earthly science of porphyrins and photodynamic therapy to help fight disease. As luck would have it porphryins like to accumulate in tumors. Like a nanoscopic Trojan Horse, Dolphin and his colleagues have experimented with injecting porphyrin-derived drugs into a patient with skin cancer. The drugs gather in the tumors and then Dolphin exposes the cancers to light. Judging by the photos in his presentation, the melanomas looked as if they had been burned right off on the very day of the treatment, much like the skin of a sunbathing vampire. And because of the drug’s preference for accumulating within fast-growing cancer cells, the healthy tissue around the tumors was unaffected. This drug is now being used to treat lung, bladder, cervical and esophageal cancers.

It’s kind of ironic that the disease thought to explain the mythology of vampires, themselves considered immortal, is helping people live longer today. I’m not sure those living in medieval times, however, would appreciate the scientific contribution to the future. “Can you imagine anything worse in the Middle Ages than having someone jump you at night and drink half your body’s blood?,” remarked Dolphin. But whether or not vampires really were porphyria sufferers, it does makes you wonder if the medical mysteries of today will inspire ghoulish myths centuries from now.

Comments 6 Comments | A Dose of Vampire’s Medicine   Print | A Dose of Vampire’s Medicine   Email | A Dose of Vampire’s Medicine   Digg Share


There might be some earthly science involved, but it is full of holes. For one, if blood is ingested, it is broken down by enzymes in the stomach, rendering it unusable. Second, the heme that is lacking in cutaneous porphyrics cannot be supplemented by the injected heme product that is used for treatment acute porphyrias.

Also, when the porphyrins build up, there are higher than average concentrations in the blisters of porphyrics, but this may also occur in those without porphyria as well; i.e. cancer treatment using porphyrins, side effect of photoreactive medications, secondary porphyria due to HCV, etc.

The types of porphyria that fit the description for vampires are VERY rare. According to e-Medicine, there are 300 cases of CEP worldwide and even fewer for HEP. What's so wrong about the theory is that both of these types manifest in INFANCY and early CHILDHOOD. Dolphin conveniently "forgot" that in his theory.

Lastly, you can do all the research you want, but truly good scientific research includes putting those theory to practice with real people. I haven't seen David Dolphin on the list of porphyria experts. Please check out this site. It debunks this "theory" put forth by Dolphin. http://www.straightdope.com/classics/a990507.html

P.S. How do I know all of this? I have from HCP and others seeking knowledge find my research to be complete, easy to understand and sensitive to their experiences.

I think that the numbers are off on how many people actually have the dissorder

I agree with the theory that porphyia is the answer to the vampire legends. Though dolphin did not present his case well, if you look through the different legends of the vampire most do coincide with one another in one way or another. I HAVE done alot of research on this subject, and happen to be a porphyria sufferer. as for the fact that there couldn't possibly be enough porphyria suffers to make the legends true, I think that the numbers are off on how many people actually have the dissorder. I mean here in the west we have excellent medical care, but consider places such as China or most of Africa who dont have access to medical care and therefore couldn't say if htey did or didn't display symptoms. I mean my gosh, there's almost two third of the worlds population who wouldn't be able to say whether they had it or not. My gosh people do the math!!! If you have questions feel free to contact me.

Porphyria cannot have been the basis for vampire legends, as those legends did not include sensitivity to sunlight, a "widow's peak" or an aversion to garlic. Even as late as Stoker's *Dracula*, the characteristics do not appear. They are the creation of Hollywood. Moreover, there is no evidence that any Porphyria victim ever drank blood, corpses of supposed vampires are not deformed, and Porphyria victims do not have allergies to garlic. This idiocy has caused a great deal of pain. I'm stunning at how many people repeat it without doing the slightest bit of research.

A very informatative article, I'm featuring it on my blog urbanhorrors.blogspot.com/
And thanks for mentioning Night Biters

As a Buffy fan, I find this particularly amusing. I mean, genetic mutations are far less cool than, say, immortal bad-ass types. I'd also like to say that is the bestest illustration. Ever.

Commenting is not available in this section entry.