Histologic assessments in ulcerative colitis: the evidence behind a new endpoint in clinical trials

Expert Rev Gastroenterol Hepatol. 2024 Jan-Feb;18(1-3):73-87. doi: 10.1080/17474124.2024.2326838. Epub 2024 Mar 21.


Introduction: Treatment goals for ulcerative colitis (UC) are evolving from the achievement of clinical remission to more rigorous goals defined by endoscopic and histologic healing. Achievement of deeper remission targets aims to reduce the risk of colectomy, hospitalizations, and colorectal cancer.

Areas covered: This review covers histologic assessments, histologic remission as a clinical trial endpoint, and the association between histologic disease activity and clinical outcomes. Future directions are also discussed, including the use of advanced imaging and artificial intelligence technologies, as well as potential future treatment targets beyond histologic remission.

Expert opinion: Histologic assessments are used for their sensitivity in measuring mucosal inflammatory changes in UC. Due to correlation with disease activity, histologic assessments may support clinical decision-making regarding treatment decisions as such assessments can be associated with rates of clinical relapse, hospitalization, colectomy, and neoplasia. While histologic remission is limited by varying definitions and multiple histologic indices, work is ongoing to create a consensus on the use of histologic assessments in clinical trials. As research advances, aspirational targets beyond histologic remission, such as molecular healing and disease clearance, are being explored.

Keywords: Ulcerative colitis; clinical trial endpoints; endoscopic remission; histologic healing; histologic remission; inflammatory bowel diseases; mucosal healing.

Plain language summary

Ulcerative colitis (UC) is the most common inflammatory bowel disease and often results in bloody diarrhea, frequent bowel movements, and bowel urgency. Patients with UC are at greater risk for hospitalization, surgery, and colorectal cancer. To reduce these risks, the goals of UC treatment are changing from mainly addressing symptoms to reducing inflammation at a deeper histologic, or microscopic, level. The inflammation in UC causes distinct microscopic changes in the colon, which can be assessed after collecting biopsies or tissue samples. This review provides an overview of histologic remission (when no signs of inflammation are seen in tissue samples viewed under a microscope) as a treatment goal in UC.Histologic remission has been shown to be associated with lower rates of relapse, hospitalization, surgical removal of the colon, and colorectal cancer. However, using histologic remission as a treatment target can be difficult due to varying definitions and the many different scoring assessments available to healthcare providers. Updated guidance from regulatory agencies and academic organizations has helped align definitions of histologic remission and how to assess histologic healing in clinical trials.The introduction of targeted advanced therapies has allowed for deeper healing with the potential for histologic resolution. This enables clinicians and researchers to aim for treatment targets that are harder to achieve but have a greater impact for patients in the course of their disease. New technologies such as artificial intelligence, high-resolution endoscopy, and digital pathology have also led to targets beyond histologic healing, aiming to restore the function of the colon’s mucosal barrier and disease clearance.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Artificial Intelligence
  • Colectomy / adverse effects
  • Colitis, Ulcerative* / drug therapy
  • Colitis, Ulcerative* / therapy
  • Endoscopy
  • Humans
  • Remission Induction
  • Severity of Illness Index