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Hepatotoxicity of immune checkpoint inhibitors: a histology study of seven cases in comparison with autoimmune hepatitis and idiosyncratic drug-induced liver injury

Modern Pathologyvolume 31pages965973 (2018) | Download Citation


The adverse effects of immune checkpoint inhibitors in various organs may be attributed to immune-mediated processes triggered by disrupted self-tolerance; however, it remains unclear whether they are similar or dissimilar to classic organ-specific autoimmune diseases. The present study aimed to compare clinicopathologic features between checkpoint inhibitor-induced liver injury and acutely presenting autoimmune hepatitis or idiosyncratic drug-induced liver injury. Seven patients treated with nivolumab (n = 5) or ipilimumab (n = 2) presented with liver dysfunction a median of 41 days (range 21–120) after the initiation of immunotherapy. All patients had elevated liver enzymes, whereas hyper-bilirubinemia was less common. None of the patients had antinuclear antibodies or IgG elevations. Stopping the immunotherapy and additional immunosuppression with corticosteroids normalized or decreased liver enzymes in all patients treated. Histologically, all biopsies showed predominantly lobular hepatitis with milder portal inflammation. Centrilobular confluent necrosis and plasmacytosis were observed in a single case, and were markedly less common and milder than those in autoimmune hepatitis (p = 0.017 and p < 0.001, respectively). Bile duct injury, micro-abscesses, and extramedullary hematopoiesis were also found in one case each. Immunostaining revealed the presence of large numbers of CD3+ and CD8+ lymphocytes, whereas CD20+ B cells and CD4+ T cells were fewer in checkpoint inhibitor-induced liver injury than in autoimmune hepatitis or drug-induced liver injury. In conclusion, liver injury caused by cancer immunotherapy shares some features with injury of autoimmune hepatitis; however, there are obvious differences between the two conditions. Checkpoint inhibitor-induced liver injury may represent an immune-mediated, less zone-selective hepatocyte necrosis not requiring the strong activation of helper T cells and immunoglobulin production.

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  1. Department of Diagnostic Pathology, Kobe University Graduate School of Medicine, Kobe, Japan

    • Yoh Zen
  2. Department of Pathology, University of Washington School of Medicine, Seattle, WA, USA

    • Matthew M. Yeh


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The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

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Correspondence to Yoh Zen.

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