BACKGROUND: Recently it has been postulated that gallbladder mucin hypersecretion observed in the pathogenesis of cholesterol gallstone disease may be induced by biliary lipid peroxidation. Ursodeoxycholic acid treatment reduces mucin concentration and the formation of cholesterol crystals in the gallbladder bile of patients with cholesterol gallstones and this effect might be mediated by a decrease of biliary lipid peroxidation. MATERIAL AND METHODS: In a double-blind, placebo-controlled trial patients with symptomatic cholesterol gallstones received either ursodeoxycholic acid (750 mg daily) (n = 10) or placebo (n = 12) 10-12 days prior to cholecystectomy. As a marker for lipid peroxidation malondialdehyde was measured in bile together with mucin concentration. In addition, the mucin secretagogue activity of the individual bile samples was assessed in cultured dog gallbladder epithelial cells. RESULTS: Ursodeoxycholic acid therapy resulted in a significant reduction of lipid peroxidation in bile as determined by the biliary malondialdehyde concentration (1.36 +/- 0.28 vs. 2.05 +/- 0.38 micromol L(-1); P < 0.005) and the malondialdehyde (micromol L(-1))/total bile acid (mmol L(-1)) ratio (0.02 +/- 0.005 vs. 0.06 +/- 0.01; P < 0.001). Furthermore, a decrease in mucin concentrations (0.7 +/- 0.3 vs. 1.3 +/- 0.5 mg mL(-1); P < 0.005) and of the mucin secretagogue activity of gallbladder bile (0.9 +/- 0.2 vs. 2.2 +/- 0.3 times control; P < 0.001) was observed. CONCLUSIONS: The reduction of lipid peroxidation and mucin secretagogue activity of gallbladder bile induced by ursodeoxycholic acid treatment may contribute to the beneficial effects of this drug on gallbladder bile composition and symptoms in cholesterol gallstone patients.