Pathophysiology of Cholangiopathies

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The diseases of the intrahepatic biliary tree are a large group of potentially evolutive congenital and acquired liver disorders affecting both the adult and pediatric populations. They represent a relevant cause of liver-related morbidity and mortality and an important indication for liver transplantation, particularly in children. While the practical approach to patients affected by biliary tree diseases has not significantly changed yet, the conceptual approach to the pathophysiology of cholangiopathies has witnessed important advances that will be discussed. The primary cell target of the pathogenetic sequence of these disorders is the biliary epithelium. Cholangiocytes have multifaceted functions, not limited to bile production. Their capability to secrete a range of different pro-inflammatory mediators, cytokines, and chemokines indicates a major role of cholangiocytes in the inflammatory reaction. Furthermore, paracrine secretion of growth factors and peptides mediates an extensive cross-talk with other liver cell types, including hepatocytes, stellate, and endothelial and inflammatory cells. Cholangiopathies share a number of pathogenetic mechanisms, including inflammation, cholestasis, fibrosis, apoptosis, altered development, and neoplastic transformation. These basic disease mechanisms will be discussed in detail, along with the distinct features of a number of cholangiopathies. Furthermore, an increase in the biliary cell compartment is a common response to many forms of liver injury, from cholangiopathies to viral and fulminant hepatitis. Elucidation of these pathophysiologic mechanisms will likely provide clues for future therapeutic strategies. Furthermore, understanding the role of cholangiocytes in liver regeneration/repair and the mechanisms of cholangiocyte activation and their relationship with liver progenitor cell will be of further interest.

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