Boston: Vampires - fictional blood-sucking beings that appear in folklore - may have been real people who suffered from a rare genetic blood disorder that caused the skin to blister under sunlight, according to a new study.
Porphyrias, a group of eight known blood disorders, affect the body's molecular machinery for making heme, which is a component of the oxygen-transporting protein, hemoglobin.
The different genetic variations that affect heme production give rise to different clinical presentations of porphyria - including one form that may be responsible for vampire folklore, researchers said.
Erythropoietic protoporphyria (EPP), the most common kind of porphyria to occur in childhood, causes people's skin to become very sensitive to light. Prolonged exposure to sunshine can cause painful, disfiguring blisters.
"People with EPP are chronically anaemic, which makes them feel very tired and look very pale with increased photosensitivity because they can't come out in the daylight," said Barry Paw, from Boston Children's Cancer and Blood Disorders Center.
"Even on a cloudy day, there is enough ultraviolet light to cause blistering and disfigurement of the exposed body parts, ears and nose," Paw added.
The team discovered genetic mutation that triggers EPP. It illuminates a novel biological mechanism potentially responsible for stories of " vampires" and identifies a potential therapeutic target for treating EPP.
To produce heme, the body goes through a process called porphyrin synthesis, which mainly occurs in the liver and bone marrow, researchers said.
Any genetic defects that impact this process can interrupt the body's ability to produce heme; the decreased heme production leads to a buildup of protoporphyrin components.
In the case of EPP, type of protoporphyrin called protoporphrin IX accumulates in the red blood cells, plasma and sometimes the liver.
When protoporphin IX is exposed to light, it produces chemicals that damage surrounding cells. As a result, people with EPP experience swelling, burning and redness of the skin after exposure to sunlight - even trace amounts of sunlight that pass through window glass.
Researchers discovered a novel mutation of the gene CLPX, which plays a role in mitochondrial protein folding.
"This newly-discovered mutation really highlights the complex genetic network that underpins heme metabolism," Paw said.
"Loss-of-function mutations in any number of genes that are part of this network can result in devastating, disfiguring disorders," Paw added.
Staying indoors during the day and receiving blood transfusions containing sufficient heme levels can help alleviate some of the disorder's symptoms.
In ancient times, drinking animal blood and emerging only at night may have achieved a similar effect adding further fuel to the legend of vampires, researchers said.
The study was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.