A 38-year-old African-American woman with an unusually rapid progression of "Primary biliary cirrhosis": A missed opportunity!

Dirk J. Van Leeuwen, Gagan Sood, Dino Ferrante, Audrey J. Lazenby, Marty J. Sellers

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20 Scopus citations


The case discussed is of a 38-year-old African-American woman who developed upper abdominal symptoms and liver test abnormalities. She underwent cholecystectomy for presumed gallstone disease. This was followed by a worsening of her condition, with the development of jaundice in the next 2 weeks. Results of reevaluation included transaminases around 1000 IU/L with minimal elevation of alkaline phosphatase (ALP), an antimitochondrial antibody (AMA) titer of 1:320, and an elevated immunoglobulin M (IgM). The antinuclear antibodies (ANA) level was positive, but titers were not obtained. There was no suggestion of bile duct obstruction. Liver biopsy findings were believed to be consistent with primary biliary cirrhosis (PBC). She was therefore started on, but failed treatment with, ursodeoxycholic acid. She was transferred to a transplant center 8 weeks later after a brief episode of encephalopathy and hypoglycemia. The clinical findings were consistent with subfulminant hepatic failure secondary to autoimmune hepatitis (AIH) with an ANA titer of 1:1280, an anti-smooth muscle antibody (SMA) titer of 1:40, and an elevated IgG. Review of the biopsy showed panlobular inflammation and bridging necrosis consistent with severe AIH. On imaging, she had ascites and a nodular appearance of the liver. An immediate drop in transaminases followed corticosteroid therapy, but her disease was already irreversible, and she underwent successful liver transplantation. The explanted liver was shrunken and noncirrhotic with massive hepatocellular collapse and contained multiple regenerating nodules, explaining the ultrasonographic appearances. The inflammatory component had greatly diminished compared with the earlier biopsy. The case illustrates the importance of knowledge of the natural course of a specific disease and the careful interpretation of clinical data, including autoimmune markers. PBC would rarely cause liver failure in a young woman; it is not a rapidly progressive disease. The original clinical diagnosis was unduly swayed by a positive AMA, which can be seen in up to 20% of patients with AIH. Markedly elevated transaminases with minimal elevation of ALP and positive ANA in a young woman should have pointed toward AIH at an earlier stage. The academic discussion of AMA-positive AIH versus PBC/AIH overlap syndrome remains intriguing, but prompt institution of aggressive immunosuppressive therapy aimed at the AIH component should not be deferred. In retrospect, an opportunity was missed.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)395-405
Number of pages11
JournalSeminars in liver disease
Issue number4
StatePublished - Nov 2002
Externally publishedYes


  • Acute hepatitis
  • Antimitochondrial antibody
  • Autoimmune hepatitis
  • Immunosuppression
  • Liver biopsy
  • Liver regeneration
  • Liver transplantation
  • Overlap syndrome
  • Primary biliary cirrhosis
  • Subfulminant liver failure
  • Variant syndrome

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Hepatology


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