A new £1m clinical research facility dedicated to tackling liver disease, the fifth most common cause of death in the UK, opens today at Imperial College London.
Liver disease death rates are rising in the UK, in contrast to other common diseases such as heart disease and cancer, and the new Robert Hesketh Hepatology Clinical Research Facility aims to provide care and develop new therapies to reverse this trend.
It is named after the late Robert Hesketh, who helped to raise funding for the unit along with Lord and Lady Alexander Hesketh, Lord and Lady Normanby, Mr Abdalla Saleh and many other benefactors.
The unit will accommodate fifty researchers, doctors and nurses from Imperial College London and Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust, working together to help liver patients.
In addition to providing the best possible care for thousands of patients, staff at the unit aim to better understand liver disease. All of the patients will be offered the opportunity to take part in the unit's clinical research programmes and some will be able to enrol in its clinical trials. These will address the four main causes of liver disease - alcohol, fatty liver disease and chronic hepatitis B and C - as well as liver cell and bile duct cancers.
Blood, liver and DNA samples taken from patients as part of routine care will be used to develop ways of predicting which patients will develop the severe complications of liver disease.
Researchers at the unit will wage a war on liver disease on a number of fronts. They will examine why some people are genetically predisposed to alcoholism, a condition which is responsible for 70% of chronic liver disease. They will also be looking at the genetic reasons why some people are more susceptible to fatty liver disease than others, and why some of these people will progress from fatty liver disease to hepatitis and cirrhosis. In addition, they will be exploring how factors such as alcohol and diet can exacerbate viral liver disease.
One of the many clinical trials at the unit will investigate whether treating patients who have hepatitis C with warfarin can reduce the scarring in the liver after liver transplantation when hepatitis C has recurred and causes rapid disease progression. The new protease and polymerase inhibitors active against hepatitis C are also being evaluated.
Another trial will assess the effectiveness of treatment using MRI guided lasers and focused ultrasound for tackling liver cancers.
Professor Howard Thomas, the director of the new facility from the Division of Medicine at Imperial College London, said: "Liver Disease is rapidly increasing, particularly in the young and middle aged. Tragically, patients can live with liver problems for several decades with no symptoms, not knowing that they are unwell until they reach the end stages of cirrhosis and liver cancer. It is even more tragic when one knows that at these early stages the problem could have been stopped either by advice on life style or curative antiviral therapies. We need to focus our research, clinical facilities and most importantly the NHS on the importance of screening patients for the early stages of liver disease, when interventions can return the liver to normal. "
The Hesketh Hepatology Clinical Research Facility is part of the UK's first Academic Health Science Centre (AHSC), a unique partnership between Imperial College London and Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust. The AHSC aims to bring the benefits of research to patients much more quickly than ever before.
The new research facility is adjacent to the Liver and Antiviral Unit at Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust, located in Paddington at St Mary's hospital. It is made up of four new outpatient rooms and four day case beds for investigations and clinical trials.
Professor Thomas added: "Having the clinical and research facilities together, with NHS and university staff working side by side, means we will be able to achieve the goal of our AHSC - seeing the research we carry out rapidly benefitting patients."