MEDSTAR -- People diagnosed with Hepatitis, or other liver disease need to know if the liver is scarring. The best test is a biopsy, but it's avoided by many. However, as Vince Sherry reports, a new blood test may be a better way to the hard truth.
Lorena Loarca will never forget hearing she was infected with Hepatitis B.
"You may die of liver cancer or cirrhosis in ten, fifteen years, and there's no cure for this disease. And this is the way that the doctor told me."
Lorena's intial shock was replaced with a determination to hunt down answers.
"I started thinking, ‘What if I become a scientist one day, and I found the cure for Hepatitis B?!' I was, like, so naïve!"
Lorena did become a scientist. And though a cure has yet to be found, her colleagues at the Pennsylvania Biotechnology Center have found a way to keep tabs on the liver with a simple blood test.
Anand Mehta, D. Phil., says "If you have significant scarring of the liver or significant fibrosis, that measurement is higher in the blood."
Their blood test looks for an antibody that only shows up in people with liver damage.
Dr. Timoth Block, Ph.D. says "And it turns out that the more liver disease you have, the more of this antibody in you, that there is."
The theory is that the antibody is targeting a bacterial sugar that's not getting cleaned out of the already-scarred liver.
Block says "Suddenly it becomes much harder to clear this sugar, and, and you'll see more and more and more of these sugars accumulating, aggravating the liver disease."
The test clearly shows the degree of disease, with clear or white circles showing no scarring and black ones severe disease.
Dr. Mehta says "Here's a very strong positive, this patient has significant fibrosis. This person has mild fibrosis"
This tool isn't available yet...but it's moving forward.
"The next step for this would be to get it developed as some kind of assay kit or available to diagnosticians or practitioners." says Dr. Block.
It's a test Lorena hopes for, and her condition continues to inspire her work.
"I am planning to dedicate the rest of my life to Hepatitis B research."
It's a commitment that's both professional, and personal. This is Vince Sherry reporting.
The test will not replace a liver biopsy entirely, but it will encourage more frequent liver monitoring and give doctors a way to check on treatment effectiveness.
FAST FACTS: More than 103,000 new cases of hepatitis are diagnosed annually in the U.S. Each year, 26,000 Americans die of cirrhosis, a disease that leads to permanent liver scarring. Currently, doctors monitor the health of the liver in patients with chronic liver disease through biopsy. Researchers are testing a new blood test that may be able to measure the amount of liver damage, reducing the need for a surgical biopsy. For more details, refer to our comprehensive research summary.