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Blood test to spot hidden liver damage: Traffic light system could save lives
Liver disease develops silently and so it remains undiagnosed often until it is too lateA test developed by British doctors can successfully detect liver disease earlier

Sophie Borland


11:51 GMT, 29 August 2012



00:10 GMT, 30 August 2012

GPs could test whether drinkers are at risk of developing liver damage

GPs could test whether drinkers are at risk of developing irrevesible liver damage

A blood test that can spot hidden liver damage has been developed by British doctors.

They hope it could soon be used by GPs to identify patients at risk of life-threatening liver disease before it is too late.

The number of Britons dying from liver disease has reached record levels, up by a quarter in a decade to more than 11,500 a year.

This is largely thought to be due to high levels of binge drinking and obesity.

One reason liver disease is so dangerous is that it is very difficult to diagnose and patients may not have symptoms until the organ starts to fail.

But a team of researchers from Southampton University claim their new blood test – more detailed and precise than existing tests – can successfully pinpoint patients at high risk. Such patients could then be encouraged to reform their lifestyles or be put on medication.

The ‘traffic light’ test analyses indicators in patients’ blood, which will change if the liver has been damaged. It combines a routine liver test, already in use, with two others measuring the level of fibrosis, or scarring.

Patients are then given a colour based on their risk with red meaning it is high, amber intermediate and green low.

The test has already been trialled on more than 1,000 patients with liver disease and researchers claim it was successfully able to pinpoint whether their liver was damaged.

Cirrhosis of the liver magnified: Cirrhosis may not be accompanied by any symptoms which means the disease is not diagnosed until too late

Cirrhosis of the liver magnified: Cirrhosis may not be accompanied by any symptoms which means the disease is not diagnosed until too late

They hope that in future it will be routinely used by GPs on patients who drink heavily or those who are very overweight.

Dr Nick Sheron, who devised the test, said: ‘It is a powerful tool and message for people.

‘We can say, “Amber means we can’t be absolutely sure but there is at least a 50:50 chance that you have a scarred liver, and there is a significant possibility that you could die of it within 5 years”.

‘We find that for most patients this is a pretty good stimulus to stop drinking or at least to cut down to safe levels.’

He said that liver disease ‘develops silently’, adding: ‘There are no signs or symptoms – the liver has no pain fibres until disease is very far advanced.

Dr Nick Sheron

Sir Ian Gilmore

Powerful tool: Dr Nick Sheron, left, devised the test which he says is a 'message for people' to detect liver disease which 'may prove really useful' according to Prof Sir Ian Gilmore, right

‘By the time the patient presents to hospital the liver is often very scarred.’ Dr Sheron, whose study is published in the British Journal of General Practice, said most patients were keen to take the test.

‘People are immensely curious about if their alcohol intake is doing any harm,’ he said.

Study co-author and GP Dr Michael Moore said: ‘The traffic light test has the advantage of highlighting those at highest risk who should be investigated further and those in whom the risk is much lower where a watchful approach is more appropriate.’

Professor Sir Ian Gilmore, chair of the Alcohol Health Alliance, said: ‘One of the challenges of liver disease, which is rising dramatically in this country, is the silent nature of the condition until it is often too late to reverse the damage.

‘This large study from Sheron and colleagues in Southampton may prove really useful for guiding the right patients towards specialist care in a timely way.’

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