New blood test could detect liver cancer early

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A promising new study led by researchers from Mass General Brigham and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center has identified blood proteins that could improve early detection of liver cancer, potentially transforming treatment outcomes for this typically late-diagnosed disease.

Published in the JNCI: Journal of the National Cancer Institute, this research could pave the way for non-invasive testing that identifies liver cancer risk years before symptoms appear.

Liver cancer, specifically hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC), is the third leading cause of cancer death worldwide. Traditionally, liver cancer is diagnosed in advanced stages, leaving patients with a grim prognosis.

Early detection is crucial because it allows for interventions, such as surgery or liver transplantation, that can be curative before the cancer spreads.

The research team, which included experts from prestigious institutions like Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and Yale University, focused on proteomics—the study of proteins at a large scale.

They utilized the SomaScan Assay Kit, a cutting-edge proteomics platform capable of measuring 1,305 proteins simultaneously in biological samples.

This high-throughput technology allowed the researchers to detect even minuscule levels of proteins that might indicate early stages of liver cancer.

Towia A. Libermann, Ph.D., a co-senior author from Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, noted that this method offers a significant improvement over traditional tools, which often struggle to identify specific disease biomarkers in the blood.

The study analyzed plasma samples from participants in the Nurses’ Health Study and the Health Professional Follow-Up Study, looking specifically at samples taken an average of 12 years prior to a liver cancer diagnosis.

They identified 56 proteins with significantly elevated levels in individuals who later developed liver cancer compared to those who did not.

Using these findings, the team crafted a predictive model based on four of these proteins and tested its accuracy using the UK Biobank Pharma Proteomics dataset. This model proved to be more accurate in predicting liver cancer than traditional risk factors alone.

While the results are promising, the authors acknowledge that the study had limitations, including a relatively small number of liver cancer cases.

Further validation in larger, more diverse populations, particularly those at high risk for liver cancer, is necessary to confirm these findings.

Xuehong Zhang, MBBS, ScD, co-senior author of the study, expressed optimism about the robustness of the circulating protein profile associated with liver cancer, evident years before diagnosis.

The research team plans to extend their analysis to a broader range of proteins using an expanded version of the SomaScan assay, which can measure up to 11,000 proteins.

They also aim to explore biomarkers for other types of cancer and delve deeper into the factors influencing liver cancer risk across different patient groups.

This study represents a significant step forward in the quest for effective, non-invasive early detection methods for liver cancer, offering hope for dramatically improved patient outcomes in the future.

If you care about liver health, please read studies about a diet that can treat fatty liver disease and obesity, and coffee drinkers may halve their risk of liver cancer.

For more information about liver health, please see recent studies that anti-inflammatory diet could help prevent fatty liver disease, and results showing vitamin D could help prevent non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.

The research findings can be found in JNCI: Journal of the National Cancer Institute.

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