Scientists have developed a simple blood test to predict whether a patient having nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) is at risk of developing liver cancer or not.
UT Southwestern researchers developed the non-invasive test to identify patients who require a close follow up with regular ultrasounds to screen for liver cancer. The motivation behind the study comes from the fact that scientists were looking for ways to pinpoint which NAFLD patient could be at risk of cancer and whether blood samples from NAFLD patients could reveal those at highest risk of hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC), the most common form of liver cancer.
In the new study, they analyzed samples from 409 NAFLD patients to reveal a set of 133 genes that were expressed at levels higher or lower than average in the livers of patients who developed HCC over a 15-year follow-up period. The patients were then stratified into high- and low-risk groups based on how much these genes were expressed. Over 15 years after the samples were taken, 22.7% of those in the high-risk group were diagnosed with HCC while no patients in the low-risk group were diagnosed.
Researchers also converted the liver gene panel into four proteins whose levels could be measured in blood samples for easier risk assessment. When patients were stratified into high- and low-risk groups based on these proteins, 37.6% of patients in the high-risk group were diagnosed with HCC during the 15-year follow-up period while no patients in the low-risk group were diagnosed.
Most of the genes and proteins found to be predictive of HCC risk were immune and inflammatory molecules, which points toward the importance of inflammation in HCC development. Moreover, the researchers showed that levels of the molecules changed in conjunction with therapies known to decrease liver inflammation and HCC risk, including bariatric surgery, cholesterol drugs, and an immunotherapy.