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      Ursodeoxycholic acid versus placebo in women with intrahepatic cholestasis of pregnancy (PITCHES): a randomised controlled trial


      , Prof, PhD a , * , , MSc b , b , , DPhil b , , MSc b , , PhD a , , BPhil c , , MSc d , , Prof, MD e , , Prof, MD a , * , , Prof, MD f , * , PITCHES study group

      Lancet (London, England)


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          Intrahepatic cholestasis of pregnancy, characterised by maternal pruritus and increased serum bile acid concentrations, is associated with increased rates of stillbirth, preterm birth, and neonatal unit admission. Ursodeoxycholic acid is widely used as a treatment without an adequate evidence base. We aimed to evaluate whether ursodeoxycholic acid reduces adverse perinatal outcomes in women with intrahepatic cholestasis of pregnancy.


          We did a double-blind, multicentre, randomised placebo-controlled trial at 33 hospital maternity units in England and Wales. We recruited women with intrahepatic cholestasis of pregnancy, who were aged 18 years or older and with a gestational age between 20 weeks and 40 weeks and 6 days, with a singleton or twin pregnancy and no known lethal fetal anomaly. Participants were randomly assigned 1:1 to ursodeoxycholic acid or placebo, given as two oral tablets a day at an equivalent dose of 500 mg twice a day. The dose could be increased or decreased at the clinician's discretion, to a maximum of four tablets and a minimum of one tablet a day. We recommended that treatment should be continued from enrolment until the infant's birth. The primary outcome was a composite of perinatal death (in-utero fetal death after randomisation or known neonatal death up to 7 days after birth), preterm delivery (<37 weeks' gestation), or neonatal unit admission for at least 4 h (from birth until hospital discharge). Each infant was counted once within this composite. All analyses were done according to the intention-to-treat principle. The trial was prospectively registered with the ISRCTN registry, number 91918806.


          Between Dec 23, 2015, and Aug 7, 2018, 605 women were enrolled and randomly allocated to receive ursodeoxycholic acid (n=305) or placebo (n=300). The primary outcome analysis included 304 women and 322 infants in the ursodeoxycholic acid group, and 300 women and 318 infants in the placebo group (consent to use data was withdrawn for 1 woman and 2 infants). The primary composite outcome occurred in 74 (23%) of 322 infants in the ursodeoxycholic acid group and 85 (27%) of 318 infants in the placebo group (adjusted risk ratio 0·85 [95% CI 0·62–1·15]). Two serious adverse events were reported in the ursodeoxycholic acid group and six serious adverse events were reported in the placebo group; no serious adverse events were regarded as being related to treatment.


          Treatment with ursodeoxycholic acid does not reduce adverse perinatal outcomes in women with intrahepatic cholestasis of pregnancy. Therefore, its routine use for this condition should be reconsidered.


          National Institute for Health Research Efficacy and Mechanism Evaluation Programme.

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          Most cited references 17

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          Analysis of serial measurements in medical research.

          In medical research data are often collected serially on subjects. The statistical analysis of such data is often inadequate in two ways: it may fail to settle clinically relevant questions and it may be statistically invalid. A commonly used method which compares groups at a series of time points, possibly with t tests, is flawed on both counts. There may, however, be a remedy, which takes the form of a two stage method that uses summary measures. In the first stage a suitable summary of the response in an individual, such as a rate of change or an area under a curve, is identified and calculated for each subject. In the second stage these summary measures are analysed by simple statistical techniques as though they were raw data. The method is statistically valid and likely to be more relevant to the study questions. If this method is borne in mind when the experiment is being planned it should promote studies with enough subjects and sufficient observations at critical times to enable useful conclusions to be drawn. Use of summary measures to analyse serial measurements, though not new, is potentially a useful and simple tool in medical research.
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            Lysophosphatidic acid is a potential mediator of cholestatic pruritus.

            Pruritus is a common and disabling symptom in cholestatic disorders. However, its causes remain unknown. We hypothesized that potential pruritogens accumulate in the circulation of cholestatic patients and activate sensory neurons. Cytosolic free calcium ([Ca(2+)](i)) was measured in neuronal cell lines by ratiometric fluorometry upon exposure to serum samples from pruritic patients with intrahepatic cholestasis of pregnancy (ICP), primary biliary cirrhosis (PBC), other cholestatic disorders, and pregnant, healthy, and nonpruritic disease controls. Putative [Ca(2+)](i)-inducing factors in pruritic serum were explored by analytical techniques, including quantification by high-performance liquid chromatography/mass spectroscopy. In mice, scratch activity after intradermal pruritogen injection was quantified using a magnetic device. Transient increases in neuronal [Ca(2+)](i) induced by pruritic PBC and ICP sera were higher than corresponding controls. Lysophosphatidic acid (LPA) could be identified as a major [Ca(2+)](i) agonist in pruritic sera, and LPA concentrations were increased in cholestatic patients with pruritus. LPA injected intradermally into mice induced scratch responses. Autotaxin, the serum enzyme converting lysophosphatidylcholine into LPA, was markedly increased in patients with ICP versus pregnant controls (P < .0001) and cholestatic patients with versus without pruritus (P < .0001). Autotaxin activity correlated with intensity of pruritus (P < .0001), which was not the case for serum bile salts, histamine, tryptase, substance P, or mu-opioids. In patients with PBC who underwent temporary nasobiliary drainage, both itch intensity and autotaxin activity markedly decreased during drainage and returned to preexistent levels after drain removal. We suggest that LPA and autotaxin play a critical role in cholestatic pruritus and may serve as potential targets for future therapeutic interventions. Copyright © 2010 AGA Institute. Published by Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
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              Drug insight: Mechanisms and sites of action of ursodeoxycholic acid in cholestasis.

               Ulrich Beuers (2006)
              Ursodeoxycholic acid (UDCA) exerts anticholestatic effects in various cholestatic disorders. Several potential mechanisms and sites of action of UDCA have been unraveled in clinical and experimental studies, which could explain its beneficial effects. The relative contribution of these mechanisms to the anticholestatic action of UDCA depends on the type and stage of the cholestatic injury. In early-stage primary biliary cirrhosis and primary sclerosing cholangitis, protection of injured cholangiocytes against the toxic effects of bile acids might prevail. Stimulation of impaired hepatocellular secretion by mainly post-transcriptional mechanisms, including stimulation of synthesis, targeting and apical membrane insertion of key transporters, seems to be relevant in more advanced cholestasis. In intrahepatic cholestasis of pregnancy, stimulation of impaired hepatocellular secretion could be crucial for rapid relief of pruritus and improvement of serum liver tests, as it is in some forms of drug-induced cholestasis. In cystic fibrosis, stimulation of cholangiocellular calcium-dependent secretion of chloride and bicarbonate ions could have a major impact. Inhibition of bile-acid-induced hepatocyte apoptosis can have a role in all states of cholestasis that are characterized by hepatocellular bile-acid retention. Different mechanisms of action could, therefore, contribute to the beneficial effect of UDCA under various cholestatic conditions.

                Author and article information

                Lancet (London, England)
                07 September 2019
                07 September 2019
                : 394
                : 10201
                : 849-860
                [a ]Department of Women and Children's Health, School of Life Course Sciences, King's College London, London, UK
                [b ]National Perinatal Epidemiology Unit Clinical Trials Unit, Nuffield Department of Population Health, University of Oxford, Oxford, UK
                [c ]ICP Support, Sutton Coldfield, UK
                [d ]Research Department of Primary Care and Population Health, University College London, London, UK
                [e ]Division of Neonatal-Perinatal Medicine, IWK Health Centre, Halifax, NS, Canada
                [f ]Division of Child Health, Obstetrics and Gynaecology, University of Nottingham, Nottingham, UK
                Author notes
                [* ]Correspondence to: Prof Lucy Chappell, Department of Women and Children's Health, School of Life Course Sciences, King's College London, London SE1 7EH, UK lucy.chappell@ 123456kcl.ac.uk

                Joint senior authors


                A full list of collaborators is provided in the appendix

                © 2019 The Author(s). Published by Elsevier Ltd. This is an Open Access article under the CC BY 4.0 license

                This is an open access article under the CC BY license (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/).




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