Histopathological findings in livers of patients with urea cycle disorders

Joy Yaplito-Lee, Chung Wo Chow, Avihu Boneh

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Background: Urea cycle disorders (UCD) are caused by genetic defects in enzymes that constitute the hepatic ammonia detoxification pathway. Patients may present with variable clinical manifestations and with hyperammonaemia. Liver abnormalities have been associated with UCD, but only a few reports on the histopathological findings in the liver of UCD patients have been published. Methods: We conducted a retrospective review of liver biopsies, ex-planted livers and livers at post-mortem of patients with UCD. A single pathologist reviewed all specimens. Results: There were 18 liver samples from 13 patients with confirmed UCD: four ex-planted livers from patients with Ornithine Transcarbamylase (OTC) (n. =. 3) and Carbamoyl Phosphate Synthetase 1 (CPS 1) (n. =. 1) deficiencies, eight post-mortem samples from patients with CPS 1 (n. =. 2), OTC (n. =. 4), Argininosuccinate Synthetase (ASS) (n. =. 1) and Argininosuccinate Lyase (ASL) (n. =. 1) deficiencies, and six liver biopsies, three of which came from one patient with ASL deficiency. The other three liver biopsies were from patients who subsequently received liver transplantation. Histopathological findings in samples from neonates were non-specific. Samples from three late onset OTC deficient and one ASL deficient patients showed thin fibrous septa with portal to portal bridging fibrosis and focal marked enlargement and pallor of the hepatocytes due to accumulation of glycogen particles, resembling glycogenosis and resulting in a prominent nodular pattern. Serial liver biopsies in four UCD patients with interval between samples ranging from 1. year 2. months to 17. years showed progression in fibrosis in one OTC and one ASL deficient patients. Moderate fatty changes to no progression in liver disease were noted in the two patients (OTC. =. 1 and CPS. =. 1). A variety of non-specific features such as fatty change, mild inflammation, cholestasis and focal necrosis were seen in the other UCD patients. Conclusions: Histopathological changes in livers from neonates with UCD are non-specific. Older patients with UCD seem to show variable hepatic fibrosis compared to those who died early. Some of these patients also show focal and superficial resemblance to a glycogen storage disorder and cirrhosis. However, progression of these changes seems to be slow. To clarify the long term consequence of these changes, more extensive periods of follow up in a larger population series is needed.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)161-165
Number of pages5
JournalMolecular Genetics and Metabolism
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2013
Externally publishedYes


  • Histopathology
  • Liver
  • Urea cycle disorders

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