Context: Variceal bleeding is the most frequent severe complication of portal hypertension and a leading cause of death and liver transplantation in patients with cirrhosis. Patients surviving a variceal bleed are at high risk of rebleeding (over 60% at 1 year). Portacaval shunts and transjugular intrahepatic portasystemic shunts (TIPS) are effective for prevention of rebleeding but carry a high risk of hepatic encephalopathy. Endoscopic techniques include band ligation (EBL) and injection sclerotherapy (EIS). Drug approaches are based on non-selective beta blocker with or without isosorbide-5-mononitrate (ISMN).
Starting point: David Patch and colleagues (Gastroenterology 2002; 123: 1013-19) randomised 102 patients surviving a variceal bleeding to EBL or drug therapy with propranolol with the addition of ISMN if target reductions in portal pressure (evaluated by the hepatic venous pressure-gradient [HVPG]) were not achieved at 3 months. Overall, results of drug therapy were similar to those of EBL (44% vs 54% rebleeding at 1 year). There were no differences in survival or non-bleeding complications. Christophe Bureau and colleagues (Hepatology 2002; 36: 1361-66) treated 34 patients with cirrhosis and portal hypertension with propranolol and measured HVPG after a median of 4 days. Target HVPG reductions were achieved in 13 "responders". ISMN was added in the 21 "non-responders" and HVPG measured again: seven more patients achieved target HPVG reduction. Re-bleeding rates were lower in responders than in non-responders (10% vs 64%). Both studies suggest that drug therapy can be improved by adding ISMN to b blockers in those patients with an insufficient decrease in HVPG. WHERE NEXT? Long-term drug therapy is emerging as effective treatment for the prevention of variceal rebleeding. The role of HVPG monitoring as a guide to identifying patients requiring further treatment needs to be further evaluated. Trials to determine the best treatment for patients who do not respond to drug therapies are also required.