New test improves detection of liver cancer

In collaboration with the Press Association

Scientists have developed a new blood test that might be able to detect liver cancer at an early stage.

Hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC), the most common form of primary liver cancer is hard to detect and so is often diagnosed late, when it is difficult to treat.

As a result, the disease has a high mortality rate.

Current methods for detecting liver cancer after a person reports symptoms are based on measuring levels of a 'marker' protein called 'alpha-fetoprotein' (AFP).

But this method can sometimes give false-positive results, and researchers have been trying to come up with a more reliable alternative.

The new test measures differences in the relative levels of particular sugar groups on proteins in the blood.

The researchers analysed blood samples from 450 Chinese patients with cirrhosis caused by a hepatitis B infection ? one of the main risk factors for developing liver cancer.

The team were able to make a correct diagnosis in 70 per cent of cases - as good as using AFP.

But when the new test was combined with simultaneously measuring AFP, the number of false positive results fell dramatically. It also allowed the diagnosis of liver cancer in half of the cases where AFP alone gave an ambiguous result.

"When you have liver cancer you do not have symptoms in the early stages," Chitty Chen, of Ghent University in Belgium and lead researcher, told Reuters news agency. "Once you have symptoms your liver dysfunctions and it is often too late for treatment."

Dr Chen said the test would allow frequent to be carried out on cirrhosis patients, which would enable scientists to detect liver cancer in an earlier stage and to closely monitor the development of the disease.

Almost 2,700 people are diagnosed with liver cancer in the UK every year, and it is responsible about the same number of deaths.