Methotrexate for primary biliary cirrhosis

Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2005 Jul 20;(3):CD004385. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD004385.pub2.


Background: Methotrexate, a folic acid antagonist with immunosuppressive properties, has been used to treat patients with primary biliary cirrhosis. The therapeutic responses to methotrexate in randomised clinical trials have been heterogeneous.

Objectives: To assess the beneficial and harmful effects of methotrexate for patients with primary biliary cirrhosis.

Search strategy: Relevant randomised clinical trials were identified by searching The Cochrane Hepato-Biliary Group Controlled Trials Register (June 2004), The Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials on The Cochrane Library (Issue 2, 2004), MEDLINE (January 1966 to August 2004), EMBASE (January 1980 to August 2004), and manual searches of bibliographies. We contacted authors of trials and pharmaceutical companies.

Selection criteria: Randomised clinical trials comparing methotrexate with placebo, no intervention, or another drug were included irrespective of blinding, language, year of publication, and publication status.

Data collection and analysis: Our primary outcomes were mortality and mortality or liver transplantation. Dichotomous outcomes were reported as relative risk (RR) and hazard ratio (HR) if applicable. Continuous outcomes were reported as weighted mean difference (WMD). We examined intervention effects by using both a random-effects model and a fixed-effect model. Heterogeneity was investigated by subgroup analyses and sensitivity analyses.

Main results: We identified four trials (370 patients) that compared methotrexate with placebo with or without ursodeoxycholic acid as co-intervention. One additional trial (87 patients) compared methotrexate with colchicine without and later with ursodeoxycholic acid as co-intervention. The methodological quality of the trials was low. We did not find significant effects of methotrexate on pruritus, fatigue, liver complications, liver biochemistry, liver histology, or adverse events. The pruritus score (WMD - 0.68, 95% CI - 1.11 to - 0.25), the levels of serum alkaline phosphatases (WMD - 0.41, 95% CI - 0.70 to - 0.12) and plasma immunoglobulin M (WMD - 0.47, 95% CI - 0.74 to - 0.20) were significantly lower in the patients receiving methotrexate.

Authors' conclusions: Methotrexate increased mortality in patients with primary biliary cirrhosis. We do not recommend methotrexate for patients with primary biliary cirrhosis outside randomised trials.

Publication types

  • Meta-Analysis
  • Review
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Folic Acid Antagonists / adverse effects
  • Folic Acid Antagonists / therapeutic use*
  • Humans
  • Immunosuppressive Agents / adverse effects
  • Immunosuppressive Agents / therapeutic use*
  • Liver Cirrhosis, Biliary / drug therapy*
  • Liver Cirrhosis, Biliary / mortality
  • Liver Transplantation
  • Methotrexate / adverse effects
  • Methotrexate / therapeutic use*
  • Randomized Controlled Trials as Topic


  • Folic Acid Antagonists
  • Immunosuppressive Agents
  • Methotrexate