European project to develop better tests for liver disease

A large European research project has been initiated to develop better diagnostics to predict which patients with non-alcoholic fatty liver disease liver run the highest risk of developing severe disease. Linköping University is one of the academic centres participating in the study.

grafik av levern inne i kroppenThe liver is the second biggest organ in the body (after the skin). Photo credit: yodiyim/iStock
The project has received EUR 34 million from the European Innovative Medicines Initiative 2 Joint Undertaking. Forty-seven research partners at universities and some of the largest pharmaceutical companies in the world are participating in the project, which is being coordinated by Newcastle University, in close collaboration with Pfizer Ltd. Mattias Ekstedt at LiU leads the project in Sweden.mattias ekstedtMattias Ekstedt, IPL

“The challenge we are facing is that non-alcoholic fatty liver is extremely common, but we cannot at the moment predict which patients will develop a severe form of the disease,” says Mattias Ekstedt, senior lecturer at LiU and physician at the Gastroenterology Clinic, Linköping University Hospital.

A healthy liver contains very little fat, if any. However, approximately every third person in Europe has a build-up of fat in the liver, in a condition known as non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (abbreviated as “NAFLD”). This is harmless in many cases, but scar tissue forms in the liver of some people with fatty liver, and this can develop into cirrhosis.

Most patients with NAFLD develop diabetes or cardiovascular disease, but only around 10% of them develop severe liver disease. The challenge is to find just these patients. This is why one of the goals of the European collaboration is to develop biological markers that can be used to predict which individuals run the greatest risk of developing severe liver disease, and to ensure that these markers are of sufficiently high reliability. This will enable patient-specific care to be initiated at an earlier stage. At the moment, tissue samples (biopsies) must be taken from the liver, in a procedure that may cause discomfort and that can only be carried out at certain hospitals.

“In this study we will be looking for markers in, for example, blood that can be used instead of taking tissue samples from the liver. I hope that the study will also result in better biological markers for following the progress of the disease. There are currently no specific medicines against fatty liver disease, and accurate markers will be important in clinical studies of potential treatments. We need such markers to be able to evaluate the effects,” says Mattias Ekstedt.

A further participant in the study from LiU is Stergios Kechagias, professor in internal medicine at LiU and consultant at the Gastroenterology Clinic, Linköping University Hospital. Both researchers have been engaged in research into fatty liver diseases for 15 years and the research group at LiU is a leader in the field of follow up of patients with fatty liver. Another area in which it excels is the development of investigations of the liver using the magnet resonance camera. Patients under investigation for fatty liver disease at Linköping University Hospital or at Karolinska University Hospital in Huddinge may be included in the study.

The project:
Liver Investigation: Testing Marker Utility in Steatohepatitis (LITMUS) is financed by the European Innovative Medicines Initiative 2 Joint Undertaking (grant agreement no. 777377), with support from the EU research and innovation programme Horizon 2020, and from EFPIA (the European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries and Associations).


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