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Last Updated: Saturday, 8 January 2005, 00:51 GMT
Blood test could spot liver harm
Patients currently undergo biopsies to test for scar tissue development
A simple blood test could eliminate the need for invasive procedures to detect liver disease, its developers say.

Currently, doctors have to remove small amounts of tissue to check for scarring in the liver, a sign of disease.

But a European team, led by Professor William Rosenberg from Southampton University, says the blood test is as accurate in spotting affected patients. Researchers examined 1,000 liver disease patients from across Europe who had undergone biopsies.

Prof Rosenberg said the test could be available to NHS patients as early as next year.

Experts estimate about 0.5% of the population is harbouring undiagnosed hepatitis C or other viral liver diseases.

The use of these tests should significantly reduce the necessity of taking liver biopsies
Professor Humphrey Hodgson, British Liver Trust
All people who have any form of liver disease, whether it is caused by alcohol, a virus, or liver failure, are at risk of developing fibrosis - scar tissue in their livers.

This replaces healthy tissue and means the liver is working less efficiently than it should.

Chronic liver disease is the ninth most common cause of death in the developed world.

Prof Rosenberg described fibrosis as "strangling the liver from the inside".

Chemical indicators

Not all people with liver disease will develop fibrosis, but biopsies are the only way currently available to see who is affected.

They involve a 15cm hollow piece of steel being inserted into the liver, while the patient is under local anaesthetic, and a small piece of tissue is sucked out.

Patients have to remain lying on their sides for up to four hours and have to be observed for six.

The researchers identified a number of chemicals linked to the formation of scar tissue which they could potentially look for in blood samples from patients.

They found four chemicals were indicators of scar tissue.

When results were compared, it was found that the blood test picked up more than 95% of cases identified by biopsies.

The study was sponsored by pharmaceutical company Bayer Healthcare which has patented the blood test.

'Important need'

Prof Rosenberg said: "This test could be enormously significant.

"If you look at alcoholic liver disease, only about 15% of people will develop progressive fibrosis. With viral disease, the figure is around 25%.

"It is important to be able to pick up those at risk."

Professor Humphrey Hodgson, chairman of the British Association for the Study of the Liver and a trustee of the British Liver Trust, said the team's work filled an "important need".

He said the use of the tests should "significantly reduce the necessity of liver biopsies", which involved a complex procedure and the potential for complications.

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