Fasting Blood Ammonia Predicts Risk and Frequency of Hepatic Encephalopathy Episodes in Patients With Cirrhosis

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Abstract

BACKGROUND & AIMS

There is controversy over the use of measuring blood levels of ammonia (NH3) in the management of patients with overt hepatic encephalopathy (HE).

METHODS

We performed a retrospective analysis of data from a randomized, double-blind study of 178 patients with cirrhosis given glycerol phenylbutyrate (an NH3-lowering agent) or placebo for 16 weeks. Blood samples were collected at baseline and on study days 7 and 14 and NH3 levels were measured. The probabilities of having an HE episode, based on ammonia values, were modeled using binary logistic regression. A Cox proportional model was used to determine the risk of HE episodes in patients with baseline fasting NH3 levels ≤1.5-fold the upper limit of normal (ULN) versus patients with fasting NH3 levels >1.5-fold the ULN.

RESULTS

The risk and frequency of HE episodes and HE-related hospitalizations correlated with baseline (mean, 51 ± 6 μmol/L; ULN, 35 μmol/L) and on-study fasting levels of NH3, and increased sharply at levels >1.5-fold the ULN. Regardless of baseline level, NH3 exposure and the relative risk of HE episodes were decreased by glycerol phenylbutyrate.

CONCLUSIONS

In analysis of data from a phase 2 study of the effects of glycerol phenylbutyrate in patients with cirrhosis, we found that fasting levels of NH3 in blood can identify patients at risk for HE-related morbidity. Patients with HE might benefit from NH3-lowering therapy. ClinicalTrials.gov no: NCT 00999167.

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