Dr. Misel is a Pharmacist Specialist for Liver/Kidney Transplant and Hepatology at the Center for Abdominal Transplantation/Department of Pharmacy Services at the University of California San Diego Health System in San Diego, California. Dr. Gish is the Director, Dr. Patton is an Assistant Clinical Professor of Medicine, and Dr. Mendler is a Clinical Professor of Medicine at the Center for Hepatobiliary Disease and Abdominal Transplantation in the Division of GI Hepatology at the University of California San Diego in San Diego, California.
Hepatic encephalopathy (HE) is a serious but usually reversible neuropsychiatric complication of cirrhosis, inborn errors of metabolism involving disorders of the urea cycle, and noncirrhotic portosystemic shunting that most commonly arises from a transjugular intrahepatic portosystemic shunting procedure. Symptoms can include alterations in cognitive function, neuromuscular activity, and consciousness, as well as sleep disorders and mood changes. HE is associated with significant morbidity and mortality and, if not properly treated, will lead to increased hospital admissions and healthcare costs. Although the standard therapies of lactulose and rifaximin (Xifaxan, Salix) are effective for most patients, these drugs may be associated with significant adverse effects and expense and, in some patients, inadequate therapeutic response. A need for adjunctive therapies exists. Drugs that target serum and tissue ammonia metabolism and elimination may be important adjuncts to drugs that reduce ammonia production and absorption from the gastrointestinal tract for patients with severe or persistent overt symptoms of HE. Sodium benzoate is an inexpensive adjunctive agent that can be used in addition to lactulose and rifaximin and may provide an option for some select patients with refractory HE who have failed to respond to standard therapies or who cannot afford them. Although sodium benzoate does not share the same adverse effect profiles of standard therapies for HE, its efficacy has not been well established. Given the significant dose-dependent sodium content of this therapy, it may not be appropriate for patients with significant fluid retention or kidney dysfunction.