New blood test can detect liver damage before appearance of symptoms

Liver disease is particularly dangerous as symptoms usually only appear once the organ is already damaged and scarred.

Researchers have designed a new, quick blood test that can detect liver damage before symptoms appear.

The team at University College London (UCL) said liver disease, which is the third biggest cause of premature death in the UK, is asymptomatic, meaning that it goes unnoticed until its late stages, when the damage is irreversible.

They believe the new test could address a huge need for early detection of liver disease as it distinguishes between samples taken from healthy individuals and those with varying degrees of liver damage.

They hope that further development will lead to the test being used routinely in GP surgeries, with the potential to help millions of people access earlier care to prevent fatal liver disease.

The study, published in Advanced Materials, describes the new method of detecting liver fibrosis – the first stage of liver scarring that leads to fatal liver disease if left unchecked – from a blood sample in 30-45 minutes.

Researchers at the University of Massachusetts designed a sensor that uses large molecules called polymers, coated with fluorescent dyes that bind to blood proteins based on their chemical properties.

The fluorescent dyes change in brightness and colour, yielding a different pattern of fluorescence depending on the protein composition of the blood sample.

The UCL team tested the sensor by comparing results from small blood samples (equivalent to finger-prick checks) from 65 people, in three balanced groups of healthy patients and those with early-stage and late-stage fibrosis.

The groups were determined using the Enhanced Liver Fibrosis (ELF) test, the existing benchmark for liver fibrosis detection that requires samples to be sent away to a lab for analysis.

They found that the sensor could identify different patterns of protein levels in the blood serum of people in the three groups.

Co-lead author Professor William Rosenberg, of UCL, said: “Liver disease is the third biggest cause of premature mortality in the UK, and one of the only leading causes of death that’s on the increase.

“We hope that our new test could be used on a routine basis in GP surgeries and hospital clinics to screen people who face an elevated risk of liver disease, but don’t yet show signs of liver damage to identify those with serious fibrosis, so that they can access treatment before it’s too late.

“This may open the door to a cost-effective regular screening programme thanks to its simplicity, low cost and robustness.”

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