Primary sclerosing cholangitis

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Primary sclerosing cholangitis
Cholangiogram of primary sclerosing cholangitis.
Classification and external resources
Specialty Gastroenterology
ICD-10 K83.0
ICD-9-CM 576.1
OMIM 613806
DiseasesDB 10643
MedlinePlus 000285
eMedicine med/3556
Patient UK Primary sclerosing cholangitis
MeSH D015209

Primary sclerosing cholangitis (PSC) is a disease of the bile ducts that causes inflammation and obliterative fibrosis of bile ducts inside and/or outside of the liver. This pathological process impedes the flow of bile to the intestines and can ultimately lead to cirrhosis of the liver, liver failure, and other complications, including but not limited to bile duct and liver cancer. The underlying cause of the inflammation remains unknown, but elements of autoimmunity and microbial dysbiosis have been described[1] and are suggested by the fact that approximately 75% of those with PSC also have inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), most often ulcerative colitis.[2] The most definitive treatment for PSC is liver transplantation.

Signs and symptoms[edit]

Many patients with PSC are asymptomatic, but a substantial proportion will have debilitating signs and symptoms of the disease.[3] These may include:


Primary sclerosing cholangitis is idiopathic (having no known cause). While thought to be an autoimmune disease, it does not demonstrate a clear response to immunosuppressants. Thus, many experts believe it to be a complex, multifactorial (including immune-mediated) disorder, and perhaps one that encompasses several different hepatobiliary diseases.[5][6]

Recent data have provided novel insights suggesting: 1) an important association between the intestinal microbiome and PSC [7][8][9] and 2) a process referred to as cellular senescence and the senescence-associated secretory phenotype (SASP) in the pathogenesis of PSC.[10][11] In addition, there are longstanding, well-recognized associations between PSC and Human leukocyte antigen [HLA] alleles (e.g. A1, B8, and DR3).[1]


PSC occurs because of inflammation in the bile ducts (cholangitis), which results in hardening (sclerosis) and narrowing of the bile ducts both inside and outside of the liver.[12] The resulting scarring of the bile ducts blocks the flow of bile, causing cholestasis. Bile stasis and back-pressure induces proliferation of epithelial cells and focal destruction of the liver parenchyma, forming bile lakes. Chronic biliary obstruction causes portal tract fibrosis and ultimately biliary cirrhosis and liver failure.[13]
Bile assists in the intestinal breakdown and absorption of fat; the relative deficiency of bile in the intestinal tract leads to fat malabsorption and deficiencies of fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E, K).[citation needed]


PSC is generally diagnosed on the basis of having at least two of three clinical: serum alkaline phosphatase (ALP) > 1.5x the upper limit of normal, cholangiography demonstrating biliary strictures or irregularity consistent with PSC, and liver histology (if available). Historically, a cholangiogram would be obtained via endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP), which typically reveals "beading" (alternating strictures and dilation) of the bile ducts inside and/or outside the liver. Currently, the preferred option for diagnostic cholangiography, given its non-invasive yet highly accurate nature, is magnetic resonance cholangiopancreatography (MRCP), a magnetic resonance imaging technique. MRCP has unique strengths, including high spatial resolution, and can even be used to visualize the biliary tract of small animal models of PSC.[14]

Most people with PSC have evidence of autoantibodies and abnormal immunoglobulin levels.[15] For example, approximately 80% of people with PSC have perinuclear anti-neutrophil cytoplasmic antibodies; however, this and other immunoglobulin findings are not specific to those with PSC and are of unclear clinical significance/consequence. Antinuclear antibodies and anti-smooth muscle antibody are found in 20%-50% of PSC patients and, likewise, are not specific for the disease but may identify a subgroup of PSC patients who also have auotimmune hepatitis (i.e. PSC-AIH overlap syndrome).[1]

Other markers which may be measured and monitored are a complete blood count, serum liver enzymes, bilirubin levels (usually grossly elevated), kidney function, and electrolytes. Fecal fat measurement is occasionally ordered when symptoms of malabsorption (e.g. gross steatorrhea) are prominent.

The differential diagnosis can include primary biliary cirrhosis, drug induced cholestasis, cholangiocarcinoma, IgG4-associated disease, post-liver transplantation non-anastomotic biliary strictures,[16] and HIV-associated cholangiopathy.[17]


There is no FDA-approved pharmacologic treatment for PSC. Some experts recommend a trial of ursodeoxycholic acid (UDCA), a bile acid occurring naturally in small quantities in humans, as it has been shown to lower elevated liver enzyme numbers in patients with PSC and proven effective in other cholestatic liver diseases. However, UDCA has yet to be shown to clear lead to improved liver histology and adverse event-free survival.[3][18]

Treatment for patients with PSC also includes therapies to relieve itching (antipruritics) (e.g. the bile acid sequestrant (cholestyramine), antibiotics to treat episodes of acute cholangitis, and vitamin supplements, as people with PSC are often deficient in fat-soluble vitamins (vitamin A, vitamin D, vitamin E, and vitamin K).

In some cases, ERCP with balloon dilation, with or without stenting, may be necessary in order to open major blockages (dominant strictures) in the biliary tree.[citation needed]

Liver transplantation is the only proven long-term treatment of PSC. Indications for transplantation include recurrent bacterial cholangitis, decompensated cirrhosis, hepatocellular carcinoma, hilar cholangiocarcinoma, and complications of portal hypertension. Unfortunately, not all patients are candidates for liver transplantation, and some will experience disease recurrence afterward.[5]

Despite there being no curative treatment at present, it is important to note that there are several clinical trials underway that aim to slow progression of this liver disease.[19]


PSC carries an estimated median liver transplant-free survival time (from diagnosis) of approximately 15 years.[20][21] Various models have been developed to help predict survival, but their use is generally best suited for research and not clinical purposes. Recently, normalization of serum alkaline phosphatase has been shown to be an accurate and non-invasive predictor of favorable long-term outcomes.[22]

Related diseases[edit]

Primary sclerosing cholangitis is associated with cholangiocarcinoma,[23] a cancer of the biliary tree, for which the lifetime risk among patients with PSC is 10-15%.[24] This represents a 160-fold greater risk of developing cholangiocarcinoma compared to the general population.[24] Surveillance for cholangiocarcinoma in patients with PSC is encouraged, with some experts recommending annual surveillance,[25] but there is no official consensus on the modality and interval of choice.[citation needed] Colon cancer is also associated with PSC.[23]

PSC has a significant association with ulcerative colitis, an inflammatory bowel disease primarily affecting the large intestine. As many as 5% of patients with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), especially ulcerative colitis (UC), may be co-diagnosed with PSC[26] and approximately 70% of people with primary sclerosing cholangitis have ulcerative colitis.[13] Those with PSC and IBD are at approximately 30-fold increased risk of developing colorectal cancer; therefore, regular surveillance is recommended.[27] The presence of colitis is associated with a greater risk of liver disease progression and bile duct cancer (cholangiocarcinoma).[28] Close monitoring of PSC patients is vital.

Other diseases with which PSC is associated include osteoporosis (hepatic osteodystrophy) and hypothyroidism.


There is a 2-3:1 male-to-female predilection in primary sclerosing cholangitis.[13] PSC can affect men and women at any age, although it is commonly diagnosed in the fourth decade of life, most often in the presence of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).[12] PSC progresses slowly and is often asymptomatic, so it can be present for years before it is diagnosed and before it causes clinically significant consequences. There is relatively little data on the prevalence and incidence of primary sclerosing cholangitis, with studies in different countries showing annual incidence of 0.068–1.3 per 100,000 people and prevalence 0.22–8.5 per 100,000; given that PSC is closely linked with ulcerative colitis, it is likely that the risk is higher in populations where UC is more common.[29] In the United States, an estimated 25,000 individuals have PSC.

See also[edit]

  • Chris Klug - professional snowboarder with PSC who had liver transplant
  • Chris LeDoux - professional rodeo rider and country musician with PSC who died of cholangiocarcinoma
  • Elena Baltacha - British professional tennis player, diagnosed with PSC at age 19 and died five months after being diagnosed with PSC-associated liver cancer (specifically cholangiocarcinoma) at the age of 30.
  • Walter Payton - died of complications of PSC.


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