Pathogenesis of gallstones

Am J Surg. 1993 Apr;165(4):410-9. doi: 10.1016/s0002-9610(05)80932-8.


Gallstones form as a result of many disorders. Unphysiologic supersaturation, generally from hypersecretion of cholesterol, is essential for the formation of cholesterol gallstones. The other common abnormalities of the hepatobiliary system in gallstone patients are accelerated nucleation, gallbladder hypomotility, and the accumulation of mucin gel. An attempt is made here to relate hypersecretion of cholesterol and biliary supersaturation to the molecular basis of the associated phenomena. Supersaturation of bile with calcium hydrogen bilirubinate, the acid calcium salt of unconjugated bilirubin, is essential for pigment gallstone formation, but its magnitude remains undefined in model systems. Nucleation and the precipitation of calcium hydrogen bilirubinate with the polymerization of the pigment in the gallbladder, together with the deposition of the inorganic salts, calcium carbonate and phosphate, result in black pigment gallstone formation. On the basis of ex vivo muscle studies, gallbladder hypomotility is unlikely in patients with black pigment stones but is invariably present in patients with cholesterol stones. Pigment supersaturation in the gallbladder is the result of hepatic hypersecretion of bilirubin conjugates in hemolytic disorders and possibly enterohepatic cycling of unconjugated bilirubin in nonhemolytic states. Less common is bile salt hyposecretion from impaired synthesis in constitutional disorders and cirrhosis, and uncompensated interruption of the enterohepatic circulation in ileal dysfunction syndromes. Bile salt deficiency causes incomplete solubilization of unconjugated bilirubin and impaired binding of calcium ions. Stasis and anaerobic bacterial infection are responsible for brown pigment stones, which usually form in the bile ducts. In addition to the precipitation of calcium hydrogen bilirubinate that remains unpolymerized, there is also the deposition of the calcium salts of saturated fatty acids and free bile acids, both of which are the result of bacterial enzymatic hydrolysis of biliary lipids.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Bile Duct Diseases / etiology
  • Bile Duct Diseases / metabolism
  • Bile Duct Diseases / physiopathology
  • Cholelithiasis / chemistry
  • Cholelithiasis / etiology*
  • Cholelithiasis / physiopathology
  • Cholesterol / analysis
  • Cholesterol / metabolism
  • Cholesterol / physiology
  • Humans
  • Pigments, Biological / analysis
  • Pigments, Biological / metabolism
  • Prognosis
  • United States


  • Pigments, Biological
  • Cholesterol