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Chronic liver disease is a silent killer.
Among the millions who die from the disease
each year, many can go as long as 20 years
without knowing anything is wrong.
By then, when cirrhosis has already set in,
it’s often too late.
But according to researchers from Europe,
it doesn’t have to be this way.
They’re embarking on a monumental project
they’ve dubbed “LiverScreen”.
Using cutting-edge technology, their mission
is to devise and evaluate a screening strategy
for detecting chronic liver disease early
enough to take action.
Aiming to enroll 30,000 subjects from the
general population across 8 countries, the
project is decidedly ambitious.
But if successful, it could transform the
lives of millions of people across the globe.
The study will focus on one major sign of
liver disease in particular: fibrosis.
Excessive alcohol, obesity, type 2 diabetes,
and metabolic syndrome create fibrous scars
as the liver tries to repair damage caused
by overwork.
The danger is that fibrosis itself causes
no symptoms.
Often, only when fibrosis has advanced to
cirrhosis do patients report to the clinic.
But fibrogenesis is a dynamic process: scar
fibers continuously form and fall apart.
That means that fibrosis is actually reversible—at
least, in its early stages.
So timely detection offers the possibility
of reversal through treatment or lifestyle
Unfortunately, current methods for diagnosing
fibrosis are lacking.
Liver biopsy, the gold-standard approach,
is invasive, painful, and costly; ultrasound
produces inconclusive results at early stages;
and biomarkers such as transaminase levels
can be deceptive, registering normal in patients
with advanced liver disease.
Instead, the international team plans to use
a device called FibroScan.
FibroScan operates on the principle that scar
tissue is stiffer than healthy tissue.
By beaming a mixture of high- and low-frequency
waves through the liver and reading their
bounceback, FibroScan calculates the extent
of fibrosis.
And it's fast and easy to use.
FibroScan can be performed by nurses or physicians
after a short training and can produce results
in 5 minutes.
After detecting liver disease early in asymptomatic
subjects, the LiverScreen team will link Fibroscan
to blood tests and genetics results obtained
from the same subjects.
That could help researchers detect indirect
signals of fibrosis and identify subjects
with susceptibility of progression.
Ultimately, LiverScreen will assemble a list
of factors that identify patients as high-risk
for cirrhosis or disease progression, which
could lead to tremendous savings in cost and
time for healthcare systems and patients alike.
With obesity and alcohol consumption on the
rise, the results of the LiverScreen project
could prove timely.
Understanding what to look out for in the
clinic would aid doctors in the struggle to
spot and treat liver disease before it’s
too late.

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