The pathogenesis of primary sclerosing cholangitis (PSC), a progressive biliary tract disease without approved medical therapy, is not well understood. The relationship between PSC and inflammatory bowel disease has inspired theories that intestinal factors may contribute to the development and progression of hepatobiliary fibrosis in PSC. There is evidence from both fecal and mucosa-associated microbial studies that patients with PSC harbor an abnormal enteric microbiome. These organisms are thought to produce toxic byproducts that stimulate immune-mediated damage of hepatocytes and the biliary tree. The link between these mechanisms may be related to altered intestinal permeability leading to migration of bacteria or associated toxins to the liver through the portal circulation. In support of these concepts, early trials have demonstrated improved biochemical parameters and symptoms of PSC with oral antibiotics, ostensibly through manipulation of the enteric microbiota. This article reviews the published literature for evidence as well as gaps in knowledge regarding these mechanisms by which intestinal aberrations might drive the development of PSC. We also identify areas of future research that are needed to link and verify these pathways to enhance diagnostic and therapeutic approaches.
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