Ursodeoxycholic acid

Aust Prescr 1999;22:95-8

Ursofalk (Orphan Australia)
250 mg capsules
Approved indication: chronic cholestasis
Australian Medicines Handbook Section 12

In primary biliary cirrhosis, there is chronic inflammation which destroys the intrahepatic bile ductules. At first, patients may be asymptomatic, but the reduced excretion of bile can cause steatorrhoea. The disease slowly progresses and death can result from hepatic failure or the complications of cirrhosis. Primary biliary cirrhosis is now a common indication for a liver transplant. Although there is no effective drug treatment, some patients will benefit from ursodeoxycholic acid.

Ursodeoxycholic acid is a bile acid which is synthesised from its precursor by intestinal bacteria. Its mechanism of action in primary biliary cirrhosis is uncertain. Ursodeoxycholic acid may have an effect by increasing the flow and altering the composition of bile. It has also been used in the treatment of gallstones.

In clinical trials with at least two years of follow up, patients who took ursodeoxycholic acid had improved liver function tests. This may not always improve the patient’s symptoms or the histology of the liver.

Ursodeoxycholic acid has few known adverse effects. Diarrhoea is the main adverse reaction. Patients can complain of an increase in itching when they begin treatment. This may respond to a reduction in the dose. Ursodeoxycholic acid is contraindicated if there is acute inflammation of the gall bladder or obstruction of the common bile duct.

Ursodeoxycholic acid will probably have a role in delaying the need for liver transplantation. A placebo-controlled study of 145 patients with primary biliary cirrhosis found that the disease progressed more slowly in patients given ursodeoxycholic acid. This group also had a significantly lower probability of transplantation or death during the two-year study.1


. Poupon RE, Poupon R, Balkau B. Ursodiol for the long-term treatment of primary biliary cirrhosis. The UDCA-PBC Study Group. N Engl J Med 1994;330:1342-7.

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