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Histologic Abnormalities are Common in Protocol Liver Allograft Biopsies From Patients With Normal Liver Function Tests

Abraham, Susan C. MD*; Poterucha, John J. MD; Rosen, Charles B. MD; Demetris, Anthony J. MD§; Krasinskas, Alyssa M. MD§

The American Journal of Surgical Pathology: July 2008 - Volume 32 - Issue 7 - p 965-973
doi: 10.1097/PAS.0b013e3181622490
Original Articles

The utility of protocol liver allograft biopsies remains controversial, particularly in patients with normal liver function tests (LFTs). However, histologic evaluation of these biopsies provides an opportunity to examine the types and severity of liver diseases that can occur in livers with normal clinical and biochemical function. We studied 165 protocol allograft biopsies taken from 100 liver transplant patients at the time of normal LFTs and normal clinical function at 3 to 8 months (n=36), 1 year (n=52), 2 to 3 years (n=54), and 4 to 5 years (n=23). Biopsies were classified as normal, minimal changes (eg, nonaggressive portal or lobular mononuclear inflammation, steatosis <10%), fatty liver disease, recurrent primary liver disease, and transplant-related disease (portal-based rejection or central venulitis, an inflammatory pattern that encompasses perivenular hepatocyte dropout, mononuclear inflammation, pigment-laden macrophages, and variable zone 3 fibrosis). Among these 100 patients, a total of 394 protocol biopsies were performed, and 165 (42%) were taken at the time of normal LFTs and normal clinical function. One hundred twenty-one (73%) were normal or showed minimal/nonspecific changes. Forty-four (27%) showed histologic abnormalities that included fatty liver disease (n=19, nonalcoholic in 18 cases; 13 with mild steatosis, 6 with moderate steatosis, 7 with grade 1/3 steatohepatitic activity, and 2 with stage 1/4 steatohepatitic fibrosis), recurrent primary biliary cirrhosis (n=9; all stage 1/4), recurrent hepatitis C infection (n=6; grade 0/4 in 1, grade 1/4 in 5, stage 0/4 in 4, stage 1/4 in 1, and stage 2/4 in 1), recurrent sarcoidosis (n=1), Ito cell hyperplasia (n=4; marked in 2 and mild in 2), central venulitis (n=10; 5 with mild zone 3 fibrosis or central vein obliteration and 1 with central-portal bridging fibrosis), and mild acute portal rejection (n=2). We judged the histologic changes to be of clinical significance in 19 (11.5%) cases. These results indicate that even at the time of normal clinical and laboratory function, a significant fraction of protocol allograft biopsies harbor histologic (27%) and clinically significant (11.5%) abnormalities. These most commonly include fatty liver disease, low-grade/low-stage recurrent hepatitis C and primary biliary cirrhosis, and central venulitis (including some cases with subsequent fibrosis progression). The data support performance of protocol biopsies to assess allograft status, and provide insight into the types and severity of liver diseases that can smolder in transplanted (and by extension, probably also in native) livers with apparent normal function.

*Department of Pathology, M. D. Anderson Cancer Center, Houston, TX

Departments of Gastroenterology and Hepatology

Transplant Surgery, Mayo Clinic, Rochester, MN

§Department of Pathology, University of Pittsburgh, PA

Correspondence: Alyssa M. Krasinskas, MD, Department of Pathology, University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, Presbyterian Hospital, A610, 200 Lothrop Street, Pittsburgh, PA 15213-2546 (e-mail:

© 2008 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.