Acute liver failure (ALF) is a rare but challenging clinical syndrome with multiple causes; a specific etiology cannot be identified in 15% of adult and 50% of pediatric cases. The course of ALF is variable and the mortality rate is high. Liver transplantation is the only therapy of proven benefit, but the rapidity of progression and the variable course of ALF limit its use. Currently in the United States, spontaneous survival occurs in approximately 45%, liver transplantation in 25%, and death without transplantation in 30% of adults with ALF. Higher rates of spontaneous recovery (56%) and transplantation (31%) with lower rates of death (13%) occur in children. The outcome of ALF varies by etiology, favorable prognoses being found with acetaminophen overdose, hepatitis A, and ischemia (≈60% spontaneous survival), and poor prognoses with drug-induced ALF, hepatitis B, and indeterminate cases (≈=25% spontaneous survival). Excellent intensive care is critical in management of patients with ALF. Nonspecific therapies are of unproven benefit. Future possible therapeutic approaches include N-acetylcysteine, hypothermia, liver assist devices, and hepatocyte transplantation. Advances in stem cell research may allow provision of cells for bioartificial liver support. ALF presents many challenging opportunities in both clinical and basic research.
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