Pathophysiology and a Rational Basis of Therapy.Dig Dis. 2015; 33(4):508-14.DD
Portal hypertension is a common complication of chronic liver disease. Its relevance comes from the fact that it determines most complications leading to death or liver transplantation in patients with cirrhosis of the liver: bleeding from esophageal or gastric varices, ascites and renal dysfunction, sepsis and hepatic encephalopathy. Portal hypertension results from increased resistance to portal blood flow through the cirrhotic liver. This is caused by two mechanisms: (1) distortion of the liver vascular architecture due to the liver disease causing structural abnormalities (nodule formation, remodeling of liver sinusoids, fibrosis, angiogenesis and vascular occlusion), and (2) increased hepatic vascular tone due to sinusoidal endothelial dysfunction, which results in a defective production of endogenous vasodilators, mainly nitric oxide (NO), and increased production of vasoconstrictors (thromboxane A2, cysteinyl leukotrienes, angiotensin II, endothelins and an activated adrenergic system). Hepatic endothelial dysfunction occurs early in the course of chronic liver disease as a consequence of inflammation and oxidative stress, and determines loss of the normal phenotype of liver sinusoidal endothelial cells (LSECs) that become proliferative, prothrombotic, proinflammatory and vasoconstrictor. The cross-talk between LSECs and hepatic stellate cells (HSCs) induces activation of the latter, which in turn proliferate, migrate and increase collagen deposition around the sinusoids, contributing to fibrogenesis, architectural disruption and angiogenesis, which further increase the hepatic vascular resistance and worsen liver failure by interfering with the blood perfusion of the liver parenchyma. An additional factor further worsening portal hypertension is an increased blood flow through the portal system due to splanchnic vasodilatation. This is an adaptive response to decreased effective hepatocyte perfusion, and is maximal once portal pressure has increased sufficiently to promote the development of intrahepatic shunts and portal-systemic collaterals, including varices, through which portal blood flow bypasses the liver. In human portal hypertension collateralization and hyperdynamic circulation start at a portal pressure gradient >10 mm Hg. Rational therapy for portal hypertension aims at correcting these pathophysiological abnormalities: liver injury, fibrogenesis, increased hepatic vascular tone and splanchnic vasodilatation. Continuing liver injury may be counteracted specifically by etiological treatments (the best example being the direct-acting antivirals for hepatitis C viral infection), while architectural disruption and fibrosis can be ameliorated by a variety of antifibrotic drugs and antiangiogenic strategies. Several drugs in this category are currently under investigation in phase II-III randomized controlled trials. Sinusoidal endothelial dysfunction is ameliorated by statins as well as by other drugs increasing NO availability. It is of note that simvastatin has already been proven to be clinically effective in two randomized controlled trials. Splanchnic hyperemia can be counteracted by nonselective β-blockers (NSBBs), vasopressin analogs and somatostatin analogs, drugs that until recently were the only available treatments for portal hypertension, but that are not very effective in the initial stages of cirrhosis. There is experimental and clinical evidence indicating that a more effective reduction of portal pressure is obtained by combining agents acting on these different pathways. It is likely that the treatment of portal hypertension will evolve to use etiological treatments together with antifibrotic agents and/or drugs improving sinusoidal endothelial function in the initial stages of cirrhosis (preprimary prophylaxis), while NSBBs will be added in advanced stages of the disease.