BACKGROUND: Autoimmune liver disease (AILD) encompasses 3 main distinct clinical diseases: autoimmune hepatitis, primary biliary cholangitis (formally known as cirrhosis, PBC) and primary sclerosing cholangitis (PSC). These conditions are an important, yet under-appreciated cause of patient morbidity and mortality with ongoing unmet needs for further research and clinical advances.
KEY MESSAGES: There is observational evidence for genetic predisposition, with all 3 conditions being more common in first degree relatives. AILD is associated with the presence of auto-antibodies and higher risks of other non-hepatic auto-immune conditions. Genetic risk association studies have identified HLA and non-HLA risk loci for the development of disease, with some HLA loci providing prognostic information. This re-enforces the concept that genetic predisposition to autoimmunity is important, likely in the context of environmental exposures. Such environmental triggers are unclear but relevant risks include smoking, drug and xenobiotic exposure as well as the complexities of the microbiome. There is evidence for a loss of immune tolerance to self-antigens playing a part in the development of these conditions. In particular the IL-2 and IL-12 regulatory pathways have been implicated in pre-disposing to an unopposed inflammatory response within the liver. Main immunological themes revolve around loss of immune tolerance leading to T-cell mediated injury, imbalance in the regulation of immune cells and defective immune response to foreign antigens. For PBC and PSC, there is then the added complexity of the consequences of cholestasis on hepato-biliary injury, immune regulation and liver fibrosis.
CONCLUSIONS: Whilst specific disease causes and triggers are still lacking, AILD arises on the background of collective genetic and environmental risk, leading to chronic and abnormal hepato-biliary immune responses. Effective and more rational therapy will ultimately be developed when the multiple pathways to liver injury are better understood.