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Treatment for liver disorder during pregnancy ineffective: Experts

Intrahepatic cholestasis of pregnancy causes the build-up of bile acids in the blood, and symptoms include severe itching. © Shutterstock

Current treatment procedure for intrahepatic cholestasis of pregnancy, a common liver disorder that can result in preterm birth and stillbirth, is not effective, says a recent study. Read on for more.

Written by ANI |Published : August 3, 2019 10:47 AM IST

A recent study found that the currently recommended treatment for a common pregnancy liver disorder that can result in preterm birth and stillbirth is ineffective and should be reconsidered.

In a paper published in the journal The Lancet, it was found that 605 pregnant women with intrahepatic cholestasis of pregnancy (ICP), a liver disorder, were recruited with half receiving ursodeoxycholic acid (known as 'urso'), the current drug used to treat the condition, and half a placebo. The researchers collected blood tests and samples, measured the women's level of itching and recorded birth information.

The authors discovered that urso did not have an impact on pregnancy outcomes including preterm birth, neonatal unit admission, and stillbirth. They also got to know that it did not show any meaningful improvement in itch for most women, nor did it reduce the woman's bile acid levels.

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Intrahepatic cholestasis of pregnancy (ICP) is a liver disorder affecting approximately 5,500 pregnancies annually in the UK. The condition causes the build-up of bile acids in the blood, and symptoms include itching, often severe. An increase in bile acid is associated with an increased risk of stillbirth, preterm birth, and neonatal unit admission.

Until now, urso hasn't been tested in any large clinical trials to show whether it prevents premature birth and stillbirth.

"We want to find a safe and effective treatment for women with cholestasis of pregnancy so that we can prevent stillbirths in this condition. This trial has shown that the widely used drug ursodeoxycholic acid is not the answer. It is essential that we share these findings with pregnant women and clinicians so that we can avoid unnecessary medication in pregnancy. We now need to focus on finding a treatment that does work," said the lead author of the study, Professor Lucy Chappell.

"The trial clearly demonstrates that for most women urso is not the drug to do this and while the outcome is likely to be hugely disappointing for women, it is also vital that they are not being falsely reassured. What we now urgently need is a drug treatment that can reduce both the itch and the risk of stillbirth that is associated with the condition and ICP Support will continue to work with researchers in their fight to do this," said a researcher involved in the study, Jenny Chambers.

Scientists are now looking to identify other potential treatments for women with this liver disorder. A clinical drug trial will be starting in early 2020 using rifampicin, an antibiotic that is also an effective treatment for itch outside pregnancy and improves removal of bile acids from the bloodstream.

"It is now clear that urso should not be used routinely to treat all women with ICP. Our future research focus will be to try to establish whether there is a subgroup of women who may still benefit from this drug, and also to focus on new drugs to improve outcomes for mothers and babies of ICP pregnancies," added co-investigator of the study, Professor Catherine Williamson.

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