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Caroli disease

Last revised by Ciléin Kearns on 20 May 2024

Caroli disease and Caroli syndrome are congenital disorders comprising of multifocal cystic dilatation of segmental intrahepatic bile ducts. However, some series show that extrahepatic duct involvement may exist. They are also classified as a type V choledochal cyst, according to the Todani classification.

Two types of Caroli disease have been described 11:

  1. type I or simple Caroli disease: cystic dilatation of larger intrahepatic bile ducts

  2. type II Carolli disease also known as Caroli syndrome: combination of small bile duct dilatation and congenital hepatic fibrosis or cirrhosis +/- portal hypertension

Caroli disease and Caroli syndrome are rare autosomal recessive disorders with an incidence of 1 per 1,000,000 people 9,11. Presentation is in childhood or early to mid-adulthood with equal sex distribution 9. Patients are often asymptomatic for the first 20-40 years of life and may never become symptomatic 9,11.

Caroli disease can present with right upper quadrant pain, recurrent cholelithiasis, and cholangitis with fever and jaundice 10.

Caroli syndrome presents with the previous symptoms along with signs of portal hypertension, including hematemesis and melena secondary to bleeding varices.

Pathologically, Caroli disease and Caroli syndrome belong to the spectrum of fibropolycystic liver disease which results from in utero malformation of the ductal plate 4. There is a high association with fibrocystic anomalies of the kidneys which share the same genetic defect (PKHD1 gene, chromosome region 6p21) 5.

The ductal plate is a layer of hepatic precursor cells that surround the portal venous branches and is the anlage of the intrahepatic bile ducts. The manifestation of ductal plate malformation depends on the level of the biliary tree that is affected 3-5.

Caroli disease (the simple type) results from the abnormal development of the large bile ducts.

In contrast, in Caroli syndrome (the periportal type of Caroli disease), both the central intrahepatic bile ducts and the ductal plates of the smaller peripheral bile ducts are affected, with the latter leading to the development of fibrosis.

At the other end of the fibropolycystic disease spectrum are von Meyenburg complexes (biliary hamartomas), which result from discrete foci of ductal plate malformation affecting the smallest bile ducts 5.

The disease may be diffuse, lobar or segmental. Dilatation is most frequently saccular rather than fusiform, a feature that might help in the differential diagnosis.

  • may show dilated intrahepatic bile ducts

  • intraductal bridging: echogenic septa traversing the dilated bile duct lumen

  • small portal venous branches partially or completely surrounded by dilated bile ducts 1,3

    • intraluminal portal vein sign: dilated ducts surrounding the portal vein

  • intraductal calculi

  • multiple hypodense rounded areas which are inseparable from the dilated intrahepatic bile ducts

  • “central dot” sign: enhancing dots within the dilated intrahepatic bile ducts, representing portal radicles 1

  • T1: hypointense dilatation of IHBD

  • T2: hyperintense

  • T1 C+ (Gd): enhancement of the central portal radicles within the dilated IHBD 1

  • MRCP: demonstrates continuity with the biliary tree

Intrahepatic bile ducts can have a beaded appearance on HIDA scans 8.

The prognosis is generally poor. If the disease is localized, segmentectomy or lobectomy may be offered. In diffuse disease management is generally with conservative measures; liver transplantation may be an option 1.

This disease is named after Jacques Caroli (1902-1979), a French gastroenterologist, who described it in 1958 7

For a further CT differential, consider also focal hypodense hepatic lesions on a non-contrast CT scan.

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