Assessing liver disease

Assessing Liver Disease

Newcastle University's research into non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) will save lives

Experts at Newcastle University are leading an international research project to tackle non-alcoholic liver disease (NAFLD), which is estimated to affect up to one in three people. The project is looking at new ways to diagnose, risk-stratify and monitor disease severity in those living with NAFLD. NAFLD is strongly linked to conditions such as obesity and type 2 diabetes. It leads to cirrhosis and liver cancer, as well as increasing the risk of heart attacks and stroke. Tackling it is now a major public health challenge in many parts of the world.

"Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease is already the most common underlying cause of liver transplant in the USA," explains Professor Quentin Anstee. "With the obesity epidemic, Europe is very close behind." NAFLD is caused by a build-up of fat in the liver cells, leading to inflammation, scarring of the liver and cirrhosis. This scarring can stop the liver working properly, which is important for detoxifying harmful substances in the body as well as processing nutrients for energy metabolism and making proteins that the body needs.

The €34 million research project, LITMUS (Liver Investigation: Testing Marker Utility in Steatohepatitis), is being co-ordinated by Professor Anstee at Newcastle University, working closely with the lead industry partner, Pfizer Ltd. LITMUS brings together 47 collaborating research partners, including many of the world’s leading international universities and global pharmaceutical companies to develop, validate and qualify better biomarkers for testing NAFLD.

"LITMUS is uniting clinicians and academic experts from centres across Europe with scientists from the leading pharmaceutical companies," says Professor Anstee. "Working together we are developing and validating new highly-accurate blood tests and imaging techniques that can diagnose the severity of liver disease."

A healthy liver should contain little or no fat. By predicting how each patient's disease will progress, it will be possible to monitor changes as they occur. "The availability of better diagnostic tests will help us to target care at an early stage of disease to the people who are going to be most severely affected," explains Professor Anstee. "It will help us develop more effective medical treatments for NAFLD and to run the clinical trials that the regulatory agencies need so that they can licence these medicines to be prescribed by doctors."

Newcastle University’s Vice-Chancellor and President, Professor Chris Day, who is an internationally-leading liver specialist, has been part of the research team. "The project is allowing us to bring together pharma and academia in this way," says Professor Day. "It gives us real hope of making significant advances in the diagnosis and treatment of this increasingly common and often devastating disease."

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