Background: There is no satisfactory medical therapy for patients with primary sclerosing cholangitis. Ursodiol (ursodeoxycholic acid) benefits patients with primary biliary cirrhosis, another cholestatic liver disease. Methods: From May 1989 to July 1995, we enrolled 105 patients with well- documented primary sclerosing cholangitis in a randomized, double-blind study comparing ursodiol (13 to 15 mg per kilogram of body weight per day in divided doses) with placebo. The primary outcome was the time to treatment failure, defined as death; liver transplantation; histologic progression by two stages (of four) or progression to cirrhosis; the development of varices, ascites, or encephalopathy; sustained quadrupling of the serum bilirubin concentration; marked worsening of fatigue or pruritus; inability to tolerate the drug; or voluntary withdrawal from the study. Results: We analyzed data on the 51 patients in each group with at least 3 months of follow-up; the median follow-up was 2.2 years. There was no significant difference between the groups in time to treatment failure (relative risk of treatment failure in the ursodiol group, 1.01; 95 percent confidence interval, 0.6 to 1.7). During the first two years of follow-up, treatment was unsuccessful in 17 of 32 patients (53 percent) in the placebo group and 16 of 31 (52 percent) in the ursodiol group. There were also no differences in time to treatment failure for patients with early-stage disease or in time to liver transplantation. Ursodiol, but not placebo, was associated with improvement in serum alkaline phosphatase, aspartate aminotransferase, bilirubin, and albumin levels at one and two years. Conclusions: In a group of patients with well-defined primary sclerosing cholangitis, ursodiol provided no clinical benefit.
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