Liver Transplantation

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PatientPlus articles are written by UK doctors and are based on research evidence, UK and European Guidelines. They are designed for health professionals to use, so you may find the language more technical than the condition leaflets.

It is estimated that there are currently 6,000 liver transplant survivors in the UK.[1] This number is likely to increase, as survival is increasing and about 600 people receive a new liver each year. 14% will die waiting, or be deemed too sick before a transplant becomes available.[1] Transplants are usually from a cadaver donor but can more rarely be partial live donor transplant. Live donor transplants are fairly recent to the UK and usually involve transplanting half a liver, thus being associated with a significant mortality risk to the donor of 0.8%.[1][2]

The following table lists a few of the indications for liver transplantation (see reference for full table).

Indications for liver transplantation[1] 
 Examples
Liver failure
Acute/subacute
  • Drug-induced - eg, paracetamol overdose or idiosyncratic drug reactions.
  • Hepatitis - eg, acute viral, acute fulminant autoimmune hepatitis.
  • Acute Budd-Chiari syndrome (not responding to other therapy).
  • Metabolic diseases - eg, Wilson's disease.
Chronic (usually with underlying cirrhosis)
Surgical gene therapy
Miscellaneous
  • As for other organs, the demand for livers outweighs the supply.
  • Initial assessment for a transplant is based on trying to answer the following three questions:
    • Is there no alternative treatment for the liver disease? Aim for 50% survival at five years.
    • If transplant is not curable, is recurrence rate acceptable?
    • What are the unrelated medical conditions that will contribute to overall outcomes?
  • Transplants are offered at any age (although there is a worse outcome for those aged over 65 years).
  • It is important for specialists to determine the risk of death in patients with advanced liver disease.
  • There are scoring systems available to help with this - eg, the Model for End-stage Liver Disease (MELD) and UK End-stage Liver Disease (UKELD). Recent data suggest that the MELD score and low serum sodium concentration provide good evidence of outcome following liver transplantation.[3]
  • Other factors are also taken into account - eg, those associated with poor prognosis, such as resistant ascites.
  • For 'super-urgent' cases arising from acute liver failure, decisions for transplantation have to be made in a matter of days. Commonly, the King's College criteria are used to make the decision.[4]  
  • Transplant offers are based on multidisciplinary team meetings, and patients who are refused are offered a second opinion.
Complication of liver transplantation[1][5][6]
Immediate
  • Bleeding
  • Poor graft function.
Early
  • Sepsis - eg, chest, abdominal.
  • Vascular anastomoses problems.
  • Biliary anastomoses problems.
  • Acute graft rejection.
  • Toxicity from immunosuppressives.
Late
  • Immunosuppression consequences - eg, malignancy, infections.
  • Disease recurrence.
  • Chronic graft rejection (rare).

Many centres will give short-term antibiotic and antiviral prophylaxis. Other drugs may also be given prophylactically - eg, co-trimoxazole for pneumocystis and fluconazole for fungal sepsis.[1]

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  • Immunosuppression - a combination of drugs is used, consisting of a calcineurin inhibitor, steroids (weaned after six weeks unless there is concomitant hepatitis C) and azathioprine. Subsequent immunosuppression may be tacrolimus or ciclosporin alone, or dual therapy with either azathioprine or mycophenolate. Tacrolimus may be superior to ciclosporin but patients are at risk of developing diabetes mellitus.
  • Transplant rejection - acute rejection usually presents with raised liver enzymes, bilirubin and eosinophilia, and may be asymptomatic. Patients who are symptomatic usually experience nonspecific symptoms - eg, lethargy, fever and abdominal pain. On the other hand, chronic rejection usually occurs after one year and is referred to as the 'vanishing bile duct syndrome'. Again, patients may have abnormal liver function (hepatitic or cholestatic picture), nonspecific symptoms or jaundice with pruritus.

Acute illness

  • Always think of sepsis and remember the patient is immunosuppressed - eg, chest, urine, atypical site (sinuses or brain as examples), abdominal.
  • Consider whether they are dehydrated. Renal impairment is common and may lead to potential drug toxicity.
  • Consider adverse drug interactions.
  • If acutely unwell - contact the local transplant unit or organise admission urgently.

Chronic illness

  • Still consider infection, especially as the patient will not be able to mount signs and symptoms as an immunocompetent individual.
  • Consider adverse drug interactions.
  • Organise routine blood tests - eg, FBC, U&E, LFT.
  • Request drug levels (blood samples need to be taken before early morning dose).
  • If you think chronic rejection is the cause, then discuss this with liver team at the next available opportunity.

Routine checks to include

  • FBC, U&E, LFT - frequency is dependent on the time since the transplant and the clinical course.
  • Monitoring drug levels - this will usually be performed by the transplant centre.
  • Metabolic risk and cardiovascular risk surveillance - eg, fasting lipids and glucose (diabetes develops in 35%), blood pressure (develops in 60% - due to medications in part) and weight gain (20% who are non-obese on receiving a liver transplant become so two years later).
  • Cardiovascular risk reduction - 20% of late deaths after liver transplantation are related to cardiovascular causes. Risk reduction should involve lifestyle measures and drugs, such as pravastatin (the preferred statin, as it has the least drug interactions), angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors and calcium-channel blockers as any other patient.
  • Monitor ethanol intake - harmful drinking is less prevalent than initially thought and estimated at 6.5%.
  • Smoking cessation if applicable.
  • Cancer surveillance- looking for colonic, cervical, breast and skin cancer (partly depends on age and gender).
  • Osteoporosis - bone mineral density should be measured and treated if necessary.[5]
  • Vaccinations (eg, influenza and pneumococcus), but avoid live vaccines.
  • Mental health - patients and their carers may have difficulty adjusting to the post-transplant life and depression should be actively sought.

Most transplant centres will have a specialist nurse or nurses who are usually a good point of first contact in the department.

Remember that patients who are on the waiting list also need to be closely monitored to prevent the development of complications and ensure prompt treatment of infections. These patients should also continue to have surveillance for varices and hepatocellular carcinoma.[1]

Five-year mortality is highest for patients who received a transplant for malignancy, second highest for acute liver failure and hepatitis C and lowest for primary biliary cirrhosis. Disease recurrence can occur and will reduce the prognosis - eg, viral hepatitis (especially hepatitis C), autoimmune hepatitis and primary biliary cirrhosis. Immunosuppressive therapy can also impact on prognosis; for example, 10-20% will develop calcineurin inhibitor-related renal impairment five years after transplant.

Further reading & references

  1. Hirschfield GM, Gibbs P, Griffiths WJ; Adult liver transplantation: what non-specialists need to know. BMJ. 2009 May 22;338:b1670. doi: 10.1136/bmj.b1670.
  2. Christie B; First NHS funded live liver transplant programme to go ahead. BMJ. 2005 Nov 12;331(7525):1102.
  3. Kim WR, Biggins SW, Kremers WK, et al; Hyponatremia and mortality among patients on the liver-transplant waiting list. N Engl J Med. 2008 Sep 4;359(10):1018-26.
  4. Dr Paul Maclure P, Salman B; Management of Acute Liver Failure in Critical Care (including King's College Criteria), Anaesthesia UK
  5. Levitsky J, Cohen SM; The liver transplant recipient: what you need to know for long-term care. J Fam Pract. 2006 Feb;55(2):136-44.
  6. Kallwitz ER, Cotler SJ; Care of the liver transplant patient. Dis Mon. 2008 Jul;54(7):486-507.

Disclaimer: This article is for information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions. EMIS has used all reasonable care in compiling the information but make no warranty as to its accuracy. Consult a doctor or other health care professional for diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions. For details see our conditions.

Original Author:
Dr Gurvinder Rull
Current Version:
Peer Reviewer:
Dr Adrian Bonsall
Document ID:
12395 (v2)
Last Checked:
19/09/2014
Next Review:
18/09/2019

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