Researchers have developed a diagnostic tool, based on nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR), that could be used to detect fatty liver disease or liver fibrosis.
“Since it’s a non-invasive test, you could screen people even before they have obvious symptoms of the compromised liver, and you would be able to say which of these patients had fibrosis,” said study author Michael Cima from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the US.
The device, which is small enough to fit on a table, uses NMR to measure how water diffuses through tissue, which can reveal how much fat is present in the tissue.
This kind of diagnostic, which has thus far been tested on mice, could help doctors catch the fatty liver disease before it progresses to fibrosis, the study published in the journal Nature Biomedical Engineering said.
Fatty liver disease occurs when liver cells store too much fat. This leads to inflammation and eventually fibrosis, a build-up of scar tissue that can cause jaundice and liver cirrhosis, and eventually liver failure.
Fibrosis is usually not diagnosed until the patient begins to experience symptoms that include not only jaundice but also fatigue and abdominal swelling.
To create an easier way to check for this kind of liver disease, the research team had the idea of adapting a detector that they had previously developed to measure hydration levels before and after patients undergo dialysis.
That detector measures fluid volume in patients’ skeletal muscle by using NMR to track changes in the magnetic properties of hydrogen atoms of water in the muscle tissue.
In a study of mice, the researchers showed that their detector could identify fibrosis with 86 per cent accuracy, and fatty liver disease with 92 per cent accuracy.
It takes about 10 minutes to obtain the results, but the researchers are now working on improving the signal-to-noise ratio of the detector, which could help to reduce the amount of time it takes.
The current version of the sensor can scan to a depth of about six millimetres below the skin, which is enough to monitor the mouse liver or human skeletal muscle.
The researchers are now working on designing a new version that can penetrate deeper below the tissue, to allow them to test the liver diagnosis application in human patients.