Researchers discover clues to cirrhosis

Researchers at the University of Essex have found new biochemical indicators of cirrhosis in blood plasma which could help detect the disease in its early stages.

The findings of the project, which was led by Professor Paul Thornalley, of the Disease Mechanisms and Therapeutics Research Group in the Department of Biological Sciences, suggest these markers could be used to assess damage to the liver and the likelihood of developing cirrhosis which could have a significant effect on choosing appropriate therapy.

Cirrhosis is scarring of the liver involving the formation of fibrous (scar) tissue. There is severe impairment of liver function in the advanced state but recent advances in drug development have led to the view that fibrosis may in the future become reversible.

In the UK, cirrhosis is mainly caused by chronic alcohol abuse and hepatitis C infection. Ten to fifteen per cent of chronic alcoholic subjects develop alcoholic cirrhosis, of whom 75 per cent will eventually die as a consequence of liver disease. Inflammation in the liver with uncontrolled damage to lipids is thought to be involved. The new marker discovered is the debris of proteins damaged in the liver during the development of the disease by reaction with glyoxal which may be lipid or alcohol-derived.

Professor Thornalley, who collaborated with research teams in Düsseldorf and Würzburg, Germany, explained: 'Further time course studies will be required to assess the reliability of these markers in assessment of the development of cirrhosis. Since protein damage is an early hallmark of cirrhosis, it is likely that debris from this damage, leaking into the blood, will provide a novel biochemical test for early liver damage.'

The research project has been supported by the Wellcome Trust (UK) and the findings have been published online in the Journal of Hepatology.

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