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Are Biopsies Safe for Patients with Advanced Liver Disease?

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Liver biopsies are relatively safe and well tolerated among patients with advanced chronic hepatitis C, based on data from the HALT-C trial

Liver biopsy analysis provides information for diagnosis and planning of treatment strategies for patients with acute and chronic liver diseases, such as chronic hepatitis C infection. However, biopsies are invasive and come with complications such as bleeding, which occurs in 0.8%–1.7% of cases. This risk has been presumed to be higher in patients with advanced liver disease, but a detailed analysis has not been performed until now.

In the October issue of Clinical Gastroenterology and Hepatology, Leonard Seeff et al. analyzed case reports from 2740 liver biopsies of patients with hepatitis C-related bridging fibrosis or cirrhosis who were enrolled in the HALT-C trial at 10 different centers. The rate of serious adverse events in this cohort was 1.2%—no higher than that of other patients, but bleeding was the most common event, occurring in 0.6% of cases. Low levels of albumin, platelet counts of 60,000 mm3 or less, an international normalized ratio (INR) of 1.3 or greater, and esophageal varices all associated significantly with serious adverse events. Seeff et al. calculated that if liver biopsies had been avoided when platelet counts were 60,000 mm3 or less, the incidence of bleeding would have been reduced by 25%.

Bleeding risk should therefore be assessed before patients receive percutaneous liver biopsies.  The authors also observed that patients with histologically proven cirrhosis were no more likely than those with bridging fibrosis to develop a serious adverse event or bleeding.

In an accompanying editorial, Stephen Caldwell and Patrick Northup suggest considering platelet counts, as well as conditions such as hyperfibrinolysis, before performing biopsies. They add that it will be important to identify better measures of the hemostatic system balance in patients with cirrhosis and investigate the roles of pro-coagulants in this important diagnostic procedure.

Computerized tomography showing site of bleeding (arrow) following liver biopsy.

Read the article online.  This article has an accompanying podcast.
Seeff LB, Everson GT, Morgan TR et al. Complication rate of percutaneous liver biopsies among persons with advanced chronic liver disease in the HALT-C trial. Clin Gastroenterol and Hepatol  2010;8:877–883.

Read the accompanying editorial:
Caldwell Sand Northup PG. Bleeding complication with liver biopsy: is it predictable? Clin Gastroenterol and Hepatol 2010;8:826–829.

Read the complementary Gastroenterology article:
West J and Card TR.  Reduced mortality rates following elective percutaneous liver biopsies.  Gastroenterology 2010;139:1230–1237.

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About The Author:

Dr. Kristine Novak

Dr. Kristine Novak

Dr. Kristine Novak is a science writer and editor based in San Francisco. She has extensive experience covering gastroenterology, hepatology, immunology, oncology, clinical, and biotechnology research discoveries.

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