The aim of this study was to identify a subgroup of pregnant women with asymptomatic hypercholanaemia of pregnancy (AHP), in which the relationship between alterations in the level and pattern of serum bile acids (BAs) and of progesterone plus progesterone metabolites could be investigated in the absence of overt impairment of hepatobiliary function. Cholanaemia and serum concentrations of progesterone were assayed by an enzymic technique and by ELISA respectively, while BA molecular species and progesterone metabolites were measured by GC-MS, in the serum of 411 healthy pregnant women. Samples were collected after an overnight fast in the final week of each trimester of gestation. Two pregnant women were excluded because of the suspicion of intrahepatic cholestasis of pregnancy (ICP). Cholanaemia was found to increase progressively throughout pregnancy, but with normal mean values lower than 3.0μM. Thus in our series AHP was defined arbitrarily as the presence of serum total BA concentrations 2-fold higher than this value, i.e. 6μM, in the absence of hepatobiliary disease or symptoms of ICP. The prevalence of this condition was observed to increase with gestational age. Changes in the pattern of serum BAs in AHP were also found. These were reflected in a marked increase in the proportion of cholic acid together with a decrease in that of deoxycholic acid, while the proportions of chenodeoxycholic acid and lithocholic acid changed only moderately. When groups at the same gestational age were compared, serum progesterone levels were always significantly lower, while those of progesterone metabolites were higher, in women with AHP. Our results suggest that AHP is a relatively common condition in our geographical location, where ICP is rarely diagnosed. Changes in the serum BA pattern in hypercholanaemia resemble these described in ICP. The simultaneous finding of lower serum total progesterone levels along with an increase in its metabolites supports the hypothesis that a primary defect in progesterone metabolism may be involved in the aetiology of ICP.

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