Routine blood tests contain a “hidden fingerprint” which could identify people developing potentially fatal liver cirrhosis, according to research.
Scientists at the University of Southampton have developed an algorithm which could be used as a low-cost way for GPs to carry out large-scale screening using patient data they already hold.
Liver cirrhosis causes the second most premature deaths in working-age people, after heart disease.
Most patients have no signs or symptoms until they experience a serious medical emergency, and the first admission is fatal for one in three patients.
New research by @unisouthampton has shown that blood tests routinely performed by GPs contain a hidden fingerprint that can identify people silently developing #cirrhosis.— British Liver Trust (@LiverTrust) February 12, 2021
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Unlike most major diseases, the mortality rate for liver cirrhosis continues to increase and is four times higher than 40 years ago.
The Cirrhosis Using Standard tests (Cirrus) algorithm was used to analyse anonymised NHS data from blood tests from 600,000 patients.
It picked up 70% of people with cirrhosis potentially months or years before they would have a medical emergency with liver disease, and the accuracy rate of the test was about 90%.
Professor Nick Sheron, of the Foundation for Liver Research, who started the study published in the journal BMJ Open, said early diagnosis could prompt a change in lifestyle and prevent serious disease.
He said: “More than 80% of liver cirrhosis deaths are linked to alcohol or obesity, and are potentially preventable.
“However, the process of developing liver cirrhosis is silent and often completely unsuspected by GPs. In 90% of these patients, the liver blood test that is performed is normal, and so liver disease is often excluded.
The challenge now is to ensure that early detection is embedded in NHS practicePamela Healy
“This new Cirrus algorithm can find a fingerprint for cirrhosis in the common blood tests done routinely by GPs.
“In most cases the data needed to find these patients already exists and we could give patients the information they need to change their lifestyle.
“Even at this late stage, if people address the cause by stopping drinking alcohol or reducing their weight, the liver can still recover.”
Pamela Healy, chief executive of the British Liver Trust, said: “The UK is facing a liver disease crisis. Three-quarters of people are diagnosed at a late stage when it is often too late for treatment of intervention, yet liver disease does not get the same attention as the other major killers such as heart disease and diabetes.
“We are delighted to support this important study that could dramatically improve early detection rates. The challenge now is to ensure that early detection is embedded in NHS practice.”