A technique for identifying early liver damage could help improve detection of the deadly condition cirrhosis.
Technique could lead to a blood test
Essex University scientists teamed up with a German team to pinpoint a group of biochemical markers that indicate the disease is in its early stages.
The markers are made up of debris from damage to proteins, a well-known early sign of cirrhosis.
The Journal of Hepatology study could lead to a blood test to detect damage earlier, and stop progression.
Lead researcher Professor Paul Thornalley, who led the research, said: "It is likely that debris from this damage, leaking into the blood, will prove a novel biochemical test for early liver damage."
Cirrhosis kills an estimated 4,000 people in the UK each year. Over the last 20 years, there has been a massive increase in the numbers killed by liver damage, with fatalities among men up 121% since the early 1980s and among women by around 68%.
The disease is most commonly associated with alcohol but it can also affect anyone infected with hepatitis C.
Up to 15% of chronic alcoholics develop alcoholic cirrhosis, of whom 75% will eventually die through liver damage.
It begins with the formation of scarring, known as fibrous tissue.
Left unchecked, this can gradually develop into full-blown cirrhosis, for which the only treatment is a transplant. However, there is a national shortage of donor organs.
A test that could pick up early liver damage could help identify hepatitis C sufferers and also be used to monitor whether patients are following doctors' instructions to abstain from alcohol.
The new marker is a by-product of the destruction of proteins in the liver. This destruction takes place as disease sets in.
Tests showed a 15-fold increase in the level of this marker in cases where scarring of the liver was underway.
Although the test does not differentiate between alcohol damage and other causes, it could still be used to check progress of drink-related disease.
Professor Thornalley said: "Alcohol represents 50% of cirrhotic livers in the UK.
"This test could be an indication of whether people are sticking to their abstinence programmes.
"People have been looking for such a marker for many years. We've not seen one that changes so dramatically as this."
Charles Gore, of the Hepatitis C Trust, said if the test showed liver damage then patients could be given drugs to rid the body of the hepatitis virus.
But he said he doubted it would make a huge difference, because liver disease progressed so slowly treatment may not be immediately necessary.
"Damage from hepatitis C is very slow. The disease may be setting in but it could be 10 years before something happens."