• biliary disease;
  • biliary lithiasis;
  • biliary strictures;
  • endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography;
  • liver transplantation

Abstract Background and Aim:  The biliary tract has been referred to as the ‘Achilles heel’ of liver transplantation. The aim of this study was to document the frequency, clinical presentation and management of biliary complications after liver transplantation in the King Faisal Specialist Hospital and Research Center (KFSH&RC), Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

Methods:  The liver transplant clinic at KFSH&RC has registered and followed 220 patients (150 male and 70 female patients; age 40.6 ± 18.6 years; pediatric 33, adult 187) during the period from 1987 to June 2003. A total of 235 transplants were carried out on these patients. Cadaveric liver transplants had been carried out on 202 patients, non-heart beating liver transplant in three patients, live donor liver transplants in 11 and split transplant in four. Biliary reconstruction was duct-to-duct anastomosis in 147 patients and Roux-en-Y in 73. Biliary complications were suspected on clinical and biochemical parameters and confirmed using imaging techniques.

Results:  Forty patients (18.2%) developed 53 biliary complications. These included bile leak in 16, strictures in 25, calculi in eight, and sphincter of Oddi dysfunction and possible recurrence of primary sclerosing cholangitis in the donor duct in two patients each. Bile leaks were observed in the early postoperative period (median period 30 days, range 1–150 days, 95% confidence interval [CI] 8–51). Leakage occurred at the anastomotic site in 13 patients. Patients presented with bilious drainage (n = 6), abdominal pain at T-tube removal (n = 3), fever (n = 2), sepsis (n = 1), dyspnea (n = 1) and abnormal liver tests (n = 3). Eleven patients had intra-abdominal bilious collections. Two patients were treated conservatively, eight patients had ultrasound-guided aspiration of biloma, five had biliary stenting at endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography and two patients needed surgery. There were four deaths, two of which were related to bile leak, one patient was left with permanent external biliary drainage and four patients had biliary strictures in the follow-up period. Biliary strictures occurred at a median period of 360 days (range 4–2900 days; 95% CI 50–670) after the transplant. Hepatic artery thrombosis caused biliary strictures in three, while 21 strictures were localized to the anastomotic site. Biliary strictures presented with elevated liver tests in five patients, progressive cholestasis in five, cholangitis (with septicemia in five) in 11, abdominal pain in two and acute pancreatitis in three patients. Repeat sessions of endoscopic or percutaneous dilatation and stenting (mean sessions 4.4/patient, range 3–7) were attempted in 20 patients to relieve strictures, with success in only nine patients. Seven patients had surgery. Four patients with biliary strictures died. Biliary calculi developed late in the follow-up period and had the appearance of biliary casts in five and sludge in three patients. Eleven (27.5%) patients with biliary disease died compared with 35 (19.4%) patients without biliary disease.

Conclusions:  Biliary complications occurred in 18.2% of patients after liver transplantation and included biliary leak and biliary strictures with or without calculi. Management involved a combination of endoscopic, radiologic and operative procedures. Biliary complications caused considerable morbidity and mortality in liver transplant patients.

© 2004 Blackwell Publishing Asia Pty Ltd