A fluorescence-based, high-throughput sphingomyelin assay for the analysis of Niemann-Pick disease and other disorders of sphingomyelin metabolism

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Sphingomyelin is an important lipid component of cell membranes and lipoproteins that can be hydrolyzed by sphingomyelinases into ceramide and phosphorylcholine. The Type A and B forms of Niemann-Pick disease (NPD) are lipid storage disorders due to the deficient activity of the enzyme acid sphingomyelinase and the resultant accumulation of sphingomyelin in cells, tissues, and fluids. In this paper we report a new, enzymatic method to quantify the levels of sphingomyelin in plasma, urine, or tissues from NPD patients and mice. In this assay, bacterial sphingomyelinase is first used to hydrolyze sphingomyelin to phosphorylcholine and ceramide. Alkaline phosphatase then generates choline from the phosphorylcholine, and the newly formed choline is then used to generate hydrogen peroxide in a reaction catalyzed by choline oxidase. Finally, with peroxidase as a catalyst, hydrogen peroxide reacts with the Amplex Red reagent to generate a highly fluorescent product, resorufin. These enzymatic reactions are carried out simultaneously in a single 100-μl reaction mixture for 20 min. Use of a 96-well microtiter plate permits automated and sensitive quantification using a plate reader and fluorescence detector. This procedure allowed quantification of sphingomyelin over a broad range from 0.02 to 10 nmol, similar in sensitivity to a recently described radioactive method using diacylglycerol kinase and 50 times more sensitive than a colorimetric, aminoantipyrine/phenol-based assay. To validate this new assay method, we quantified sphingomyelin in plasma, urine, and tissues from normal individuals and from NPD mice and patients. The sphingomyelin content in adult homozygous or heterozygous NPD mouse plasma and urine was significantly elevated compared to that of normal mice. Moreover, the accumulated sphingomyelin in the tissues of NPD mice was 4 to 15 times higher than that in normal mice depending on the tissue analyzed. The sphingomyelin levels in plasma from several Type B NPD patients also was significantly elevated compared to normal individuals of the same age. Based on these results, we propose that this new, fluorescence-based procedure can provide simple, fast, sensitive, and reproducible sphingomyelin quantification in tissues and fluids from normal individuals and NPD patients. It could also be a useful tool for the study of other sphingomyelin-related diseases and in a variety of research settings where sphingomyelin quantification is required.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)115-123
Number of pages9
JournalAnalytical Biochemistry
Issue number1
StatePublished - 1 Jul 2002


  • Amplex Red
  • Dihydroxyphenoxazine
  • Fluorescence detection
  • Niemann-Pick disease
  • Sphingomyelin


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