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Keywords:

  • nuclear receptors;
  • cholestasis;
  • bile acids;
  • bilirubin;
  • statins;
  • fibrates;
  • glitazones;
  • primary biliary cirrhosis;
  • primary sclerosing cholangitis;
  • obstructive cholestasis;
  • fibrosis

Cholestasis results in intrahepatic accumulation of cytotoxic bile acids, which cause liver damage ultimately leading to biliary fibrosis and cirrhosis. Cholestatic liver injury is counteracted by a variety of adaptive hepatoprotective mechanisms including alterations in bile acid transport, synthesis and detoxification. The underlying molecular mechanisms are mediated mainly at a transcriptional level via a complex network involving nuclear receptors including the farnesoid X receptor, pregnane X receptor, vitamin D receptor and constitutive androstane receptor, which target overlapping, although not identical, sets of genes. Because the intrinsic adaptive response to bile acids cannot fully prevent liver injury in cholestasis, therapeutic targeting of these receptors via specific and potent agonists may further enhance the hepatic defence against toxic bile acids. Activation of these receptors results in repression of bile acid synthesis, induction of phases I and II bile acid hydroxylation and conjugation and stimulation of alternative bile acid export while limiting hepatocellular bile acid import. Furthermore, the use of nuclear receptor ligands may not only influence bile acid transport and metabolism but may also directly target hepatic fibrogenesis and inflammation. Many drugs already used to treat cholestasis and its complications such as pruritus (e.g. ursodeoxycholic acid, rifampicin, fibrates) may act via activation of nuclear receptors. More specific and potent nuclear receptor ligands are currently being developed. This article will review the current knowledge on nuclear receptors and their potential role in the treatment of cholestatic liver diseases.