Background/aims: Determination of hepatic copper concentration is important in the diagnosis of Wilson's disease. We studied copper distribution in the cirrhotic liver of a patient who died of Wilson's disease.
Methods: A liver slice extending from the left to the right lobe was divided into 38 samples. Each sample was analyzed for copper content by Induced Coupled Plasma Atomic Emission Spectroscopy.
Results: The mean copper concentration in the liver was 1370 micrograms/g dt. A striking variability, up to 2-3-fold, in copper levels was observed between the samples: the copper concentration ranged from 880 to 2100 micrograms/g dt, with significant differences even between adjacent samples. Lobar differences were also observed, with a tendency of the right lobe to accumulate more copper than the left lobe. Histochemical analyses confirmed the uneven distribution of copper even at the acinar level. Copper was mainly stored in periportal hepatocytes (zone 1) and at the periphery of the regenerating nodules. Moreover, we observed some nodules with the majority of hepatocytes full of copper granules, adjacent to areas of parenchyma negative for copper stains.
Conclusions: Our data show that: 1) copper is unevenly distributed in Wilson's disease in the cirrhotic stage; 2) a lobar pattern of copper distribution is evident in this case, characterized by a higher copper concentration in the right lobe; 3) the observed lobar pattern is different from that described in the newborn liver, characterized by a higher copper content in the left compartment of the liver; 4) copper content determined in a small liver sample cannot be considered as absolutely representative of the mean hepatic copper concentration. From a practical point of view, our data show that sampling variability deserves more consideration in the diagnosis and in the monitoring of Wilson's disease. The use of hepatic copper concentration in monitoring the efficacy of the copper-chelating therapy may be unreliable, particularly in the cirrhotic stage, because of the patchy distribution of copper, as demonstrated in this study.