Review article: the current management of acute liver failure


Dr K. J. Simpson, Scottish Liver Transplantation Unit, Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh, Little France, Edinburgh EH16 4SA, UK.


Aliment Pharmacol Ther31, 345–358


Background  Acute liver failure is a devastating clinical syndrome with a persistently high mortality rate despite critical care advances. Orthotopic liver transplantation (OLT) is a life-saving treatment in selected cases, but effective use of this limited resource requires accurate prognostication because of surgical risks and the requirement for subsequent life-long immunosuppression.

Aim  To review the aetiology of acute liver failure, discuss the evidence behind critical care management strategies and examine potential treatment alternatives to OLT.

Methods  Literature review using Ovid, PubMed and recent conference abstracts.

Results  Paracetamol remains the most common aetiology of acute liver failure in developed countries, whereas acute viral aetiologies predominate elsewhere. Cerebral oedema is a major cause of death, and its prevention and prompt recognition are vital components of critical care support, which strives to provide multiorgan support and ‘buy time’ to permit either organ regeneration or psychological and physical assessment prior to acquisition of a donor organ. Artificial liver support systems do not improve mortality in acute liver failure, whilst most other interventions have limited evidence bases to support their use.

Conclusion  Acute liver failure remains a truly challenging condition to manage, and requires early recognition and transfer of patients to specialist centres providing intensive, multidisciplinary input and, in some cases, OLT.