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Bone disease is a frequently reported complication in primary biliary cirrhosis (PBC), but its pathogenesis is poorly understood. Calcium malabsorption has been considered as an important contributing factor. Ursodeoxycholic acid (UDCA) is the treatment of choice in PBC, improving survival, but its effect on calcium absorption is unknown. In this study, we have measured fractional calcium absorption, using a single isotope method, in a group of female PBC patients (median age: 60 years, range: 46-78 years) and age-matched female controls (median age: 58 years, range: 36-74). Bone mineral density (BMD) in PBC patients was significantly lower than age-matched controls (g/cm(2) +/- SEM; lumbar spine: controls 1.139+/-0.028, PBC patients 1.004+/-0.026, p = 0.0028; femoral neck: controls 0.944+/-0.034, PBC patients 0.819+/-0.023, p = 0.0032). Twenty two PBC patients, who were not vitamin D-deficient, were off and on UDCA for approximately 1 month and approximately 8 weeks, respectively. Fractional calcium absorption in PBC patients prior to UDCA treatment (mean +/- SEM, 33.8+/-2.6%) was significantly lower than controls (52.0+/-2.4%, p<0.001). Following UDCA therapy, fractional calcium absorption increased significantly (Off UDCA: 33.1+/-2.6%, On UDCA: 36.6+/-2.5%, p<0.0058). Osteocalcin levels were significantly raised in the PBC group (mean +/- SEM, ng/ml, 41.4+/-2.02) compared to controls (31.1+/-2.64, p = 0.002). There were no differences in parathyroid hormone (PTH) or 25-hydroxyvitamin D levels between these two groups or following UDCA therapy. In conclusion, we found that PBC patients display low spinal and femoral neck BMD, reduced fractional calcium absorption, and elevated plasma osteocalcin. The calcium malabsorption is corrected partially by UDCA therapy. Long-term studies are required to determine whether this effect can be sustained, and whether a sustained increase in fractional calcium absorption can translate into a favorable change in bone strength in patients with PBC.

Original publication




Journal article


Osteoporos int

Publication Date





677 - 682


Absorptiometry, Photon, Aged, Bone Density, Bone Diseases, Metabolic, Calcium, Case-Control Studies, Cholagogues and Choleretics, Female, Humans, Liver Cirrhosis, Biliary, Middle Aged, Osteocalcin, Ursodeoxycholic Acid