Background: In non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, histological lesions display a significant sampling variability that is ignored when interpreting histological progression during natural history or therapeutic interventions.
Aim: To provide a method taking into account sampling variability when interpreting crude histological data, and to investigate how this alters the conclusions of available studies.
Methods: Natural history studies detailing histological progression and therapeutic trials were compared with the results of a previously published sampling variability study.
Results: Natural history studies showed an improvement in steatosis, which was significantly higher than expected from sampling variability (47% vs. 8%, P < 0.0001). In contrast, no study showed a change in activity grade or ballooning higher than that of sampling variability. There was only a marginal effect on fibrosis with no convincing demonstration of a worsening of fibrosis, a conclusion contrary to what individual studies have claimed. Some insulin sensitizing drugs and anti-obesity surgery significantly improved steatosis, while most did not significantly impact on fibrosis or activity.
Conclusions: Sampling variability of liver biopsy is an overlooked confounding factor that should be considered systematically when interpreting histological progression in patients with non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.