Purpose of review
Liver failure is a rare but life-threatening condition affecting a multitude of other organ systems, most notably the brain and kidneys, following severe hepatocellular injury. Liver failure may develop in the absence (‘acute’) or presence (‘acute-on-chronic’) of liver disease with substantial differences in pathophysiology and therapeutic options. Within the last 12 months substantial progress has been made in identifying patients who will potentially benefit from extracorporeal support of their failing liver.
In addition to traditional ‘static’ laboratory tests to assess liver function, the significance of ‘dynamic’ tests, such as indocyanine green clearance, has been better defined, and these tests are becoming more easily available. Transplantation remains the treatment of choice for fulminant, acute and subacute liver failure with predicted unfavorable outcome according to King's College or Clichy criteria, most notably in the absence of pre-existing liver disease, and should be performed before extrahepatic complications emerge. Encouraging results have been obtained with the use of support systems in patients with acute and acute-on-chronic liver failure in relatively small patient collectives, making well-conducted randomized trials a necessity to define their role in this high-risk population. Current (pre)clinical data suggest that programmed cell death is an important mechanism for the pathogenesis of acute and acute-on-chronic liver failure and, thus, antiapoptotic strategies are promising pharmacologically.
Although mortality remains high, substantial progress has been made in 2004 regarding the understanding of pathophysiology, and the monitoring and support of the patient presenting with a failing liver.