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The immunopathology of primary biliary cirrhosis: thoughts for the millennium

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Primary biliary cirrhosis is an organ specific autoimmune disease that produces progressive cholestatic liver failure. It is predominantly a disease of women characterized by chronic progressive destruction of small intrahepatic bile ducts with portal inflammation and ultimately fibrosis. The serologic hallmark of primary biliary cirrhosis (PBC) is the presence of antibodies to mitochondria. The mechanisms by which and if which such antibodies produce liver tissue injury is unknown. However, the presence of these antibodies have allowed detailed immunological definition of the antigenic epitopes, the nature of reacting autoantibodies and the characterization of T cell responses. Several mechanisms may now be proposed regarding the immune mediated bile duct damage in PBC, including the possible role of T cell-mediated cytotoxicity and intracellular interaction between the IgA class of antimitochondrial antibodies (AMA) and mitochondrial autoantigens. The advent of molecular biology, the ability to clone and define epitopes, and the use of in situ nucleic acid hybridization, have all led to advances in understanding the natural history of immunopathology in PBC. There are major questions which remain unanswered, including, of course, etiology, but also including the questions of why there is female predominance, the absence of PBC in children, the relative ineffectiveness of immunosuppressive drugs, and the specific role of mitochondrial antigens. In this review, we focus on these issues and particularly on the immunobiology of patients with this disease.




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M. Sasaki, Division of Allergy, Rheumatology, and Clinical Immunology, University of California, Davis, School of Medicine, Davis, California, USA


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