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A double-blind randomized placebo-controlled trial of albumin in outpatients with hepatic encephalopathy: HEAL study

Published:September 21, 2022DOI:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jhep.2022.09.009

      Highlights

      • Persistent cognitive impairment affects quality of life in individuals with cirrhosis who have had prior episodes of HE.
      • We found in a randomized-controlled trial that weekly albumin infusions improved cognition vs. placebo.
      • Albumin improved quality of life, endothelial dysfunction, and inflammation.
      • Higher albumin levels and cognitive benefit persisted even after infusions had stopped.

      Background & Aims

      Even after recovery from overt hepatic encephalopathy (HE), minimal HE (MHE), which impairs quality of life (QoL), can persist. A double-blind, placebo-controlled randomized clinical trial was performed to determine the impact of albumin vs. saline on MHE and QoL in individuals with prior HE already on standard of care.

      Methods

      Outpatients with cirrhosis and prior HE, MHE and hypoalbuminemia already on treatment for HE were included. Patients on regular IV albumin infusions were excluded. Participants were randomized 1:1 to receive either weekly infusions of 25% IV albumin 1.5 g/kg or saline over 5 weeks. MHE was defined using either psychometric hepatic encephalopathy score (PHES), Stroop or critical clicker frequency. MHE, QoL (based on sickness impact profile [SIP] total, physical, psychosocial domain) and serum markers (inflammation, endothelial dysfunction, and ischemia-modified albumin) were compared between baseline, the final infusion visit (end-of-drug [EOD]) and 1-week post final infusion (end-of-study [EOS]).

      Results

      Forty-eight (24/group) participants were randomized and balanced (including by HE medication use) at baseline. Adverse events were similar, with MELD and ammonia remaining stable between/within groups. Albumin levels increased and ischemia-modified albumin decreased only in the albumin group at EOD and EOS vs. baseline. PHES and Stroop MHE reversal and improvement were greater in the albumin group at EOD and persisted at EOS. SIP total and psychosocial, but not physical, domain improved only in the albumin group at EOD and EOS vs. baseline. A significant reduction in IL-1β and endothelial dysfunction markers was also observed in the albumin group.

      Conclusion

      In a double-blind, placebo-controlled trial of outpatients with cirrhosis, prior HE and current MHE, albumin infusions were associated with improved cognitive function and psychosocial QoL, likely due to amelioration of endothelial dysfunction.

      Clinical trials registration

      Impact and implications

      Even after recovery from overt hepatic encephalopathy (HE), minimal HE (MHE), which impairs quality of life, can persist. We found that intravenous albumin infusions were associated with improved cognitive function and psychosocial quality of life, likely owing to amelioration of endothelial dysfunction, compared to placebo in outpatients with prior HE and current MHE. In patients who continue to demonstrate cognitive dysfunction and impaired quality of life despite standard of care therapy for HE, albumin infusions could be considered if these results are validated.

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