While it’s normal for the liver to contain small amounts of fat, fatty liver disease is becoming an increasing problem for Australians and many of others around the world.
More than 40 per cent of adults over the age of 50 experience the accumulation of fat in the liver, while it also impacts more than 5.5 million Australians. This excess of fat can cause the liver to become inflamed – known as steatohepatitis – which can cause the vital organ to become damaged.
There are often no symptoms of fatty liver in its earliest stages, meaning many people don’t realise they’re living with the condition until their liver is damaged or they begin showing symptoms of weakness, discomfort, fatigue and weight loss down the track.
Researchers now believe they’ve discovered a new way of determining toxic fats in the liver early on that could potentially prevent illness, liver transplants and even death. The research, published in the Nature Journal, found certain biomarkers in the blood can predict the accumulation of toxic fats in the liver. These fats are a major sign of early fatty liver disease and the predictions can be made based on the lipid (fats) profile in the blood.
“Fatty liver is a risk factor for diabetes and heart disease, and if left unchecked can ultimately lead to liver cancer and failure,” lead author Brian Drew said in a statement, explaining that fatty liver is expected to be the leading cause of liver transplant in the next 10 to 20 years.
“We have identified a group of fats in the blood that may be reflective of fatty liver disease progression. We are hoping that this discovery might lead to a blood test to avoid invasive biopsy or surgery to determine those most at risk of advanced fatty liver disease”.
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Researchers analysed a combination of human samples and preclinical models to identify the biomarkers, as well as identifying new links to molecules that are important for the development of fatty liver disease and could represent potential new drug targets.
“This study is a technological tour de force and represents one of the most futuristic approaches for examining complex diseases like diabetes and cardiovascular disease,” researcher David James from the University of Sydney’s Charles Perkins Centre said. “We have simultaneously measured many different layers of the biological system including lipids and other metabolites as well as thousands of proteins and integrated this with genetic information.
“This has given us an exciting view of how complex diseases like fatty liver occur. Most importantly this approach represents a new way forward in precision medicine, an approach which will transform health care.”
Researchers noted that more young people are being diagnosed with fatty liver and that it is becoming an increasing problem in Australia and around the world. At present, there aren’t enough effective tools available to treat the condition in its early stages, highlighting the need for researchers to identify new targets for drug development.
The next step for researchers is to use bigger data sets to further solidify their results. At present, most people are diagnosed when they have other medical tests. Doctors may also send patients for blood tests, ultrasounds, CT scans or MRI for a proper diagnosis.
It’s always important to talk to a health professional about your liver health.
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