Unconjugated hyperbilirubinemia results from disease states that lead to bilirubin accumulation in plasma, such as increase the rate of bilirubin formation (eg, hemolysis) or reduce the rate of bilirubin conjugation (eg, Gilbert syndrome).
Bilirubin is a byproduct of heme metabolism. About 80% of bilirubin is derived from the breakdown of hemoglobin; the remainder (about 20%) is from the breakdown of other heme proteins such as cytochrome, myoglobin, and tryptophan.
Unconjugated bilirubin is highly insoluble in water; therefore, it must be converted to a soluble conjugate before elimination from the body. In the liver, uridine diphosphate (UDP)-glucuronyl transferase (UGT) converts bilirubin to a mixture of monoglucuronides and diglucuronides, referred to as conjugated bilirubin, which is then secreted into the bile canaliculi by an adenosine triphosphate (ATP)-dependent transporter. This process is highly efficient under normal conditions, such that plasma unconjugated bilirubin concentrations remain low. The bilirubin measured in serum reflects a balance between production and clearance.
Accumulation of bilirubin or its conjugates in body tissues produces jaundice (ie, icterus), which is characterized by high plasma bilirubin levels and the deposition of yellow bilirubin pigments in the skin, sclerae, mucous membranes, and other less visible tissues.
Diseases that reduce the rate of secretion of conjugated bilirubin into the bile or the flow of bile into the intestine produce a mixed or predominantly conjugated hyperbilirubinemia due to the reflux of conjugates back into the plasma. Elevated conjugated bilirubin levels usually indicate hepatobiliary disease.
Normal serum values of total bilirubin typically are 0.2-1 mg/dL (3.4-17.1 µmol/L), of which no more than 0.2 mg/dL (3.4 µmol/L) are directly reacting.