Researchers are developing new ways of targeting liver fibrosis - a potentially-fatal feature of chronic liver disease which is currently untreatable with drugs.
Leading medical research charity, Action Research, has injected more than £93,000 to the exciting study which could offer fresh hope to thousands of patients with all kinds of liver conditions.
Liver fibrosis is frequently caused by inflammation and the formation of fibrous scar tissue in the liver, due to infection or injury.
The only current treatment is liver transplantation and there are not enough donors available. The development of new drugs is therefore urgently needed.
Lead researcher, Dr Nicholas Sheron, a senior lecturer in hepatology in Southampton, explains: ‘Irrespective of the type of liver disease - from childhood liver disease to chronic adult conditions - the resulting damage can be the same scarring, which hinders the regeneration of healthy tissue.
‘If you can design a drug or treatment which interferes with the scarring process you have the potential to treat all the various liver diseases collectively, rather than trying to fight each liver disease one by one.’
This three-year project is based at the Division of Cell and Molecular Medicine and Clinical Neurosciences both at Southampton General Hospital, and also includes Dr Lars Sundstrom.
The team will focus on developing a completely new model of liver fibrosis using donated human liver tissue obtained during cancer surgery. They will then harness the model to test new preventative drugs.
Fundamentally, the liver is important for making proteins and eliminating waste products. Liver disease only presents itself when severe, with signs such as jaundice and ascites (free fluid in the tummy), and any resulting scar tissue is a permanent problem.
A major cause of illness and fatalities, deaths from liver fibrosis in the UK have increased by more than 50 per cent in the last five years, to an estimated 10,000 per annum.
The rapid spread of Hepatitis C - a virus which lives in the liver and is the cause of half of all adult liver diseases - has produced a ‘timebomb’ of patients with advancing liver fibrosis. This is because Hepatitis C is currently treatable in only 40-50% of cases, leaving the condition in other sufferers to progressively become worse.
Furthermore, rising levels of obesity and diabetes have resulted in an increasing incidence of fatty liver, which may lead to fibrosis.
The development of new drugs, however, is hampered by the difficulty of replicating liver fibrosis in the laboratory. The only models currently available involve problematic animal experiments.
But the Southampton team is now refining unique techniques using human tissue adapted from methods in brain research, and which formed the bulk of an extended research project spearheaded by medical student Clare Verril, who is due to graduate this summer from the University of Southampton.
She says: ‘It turned out to be a really interesting project with lots of possibilities and I’m thrilled the work is going to be continued.’
Dr Sheron says the results could be far reaching: ‘If the project is successful, it will provide a very powerful resource on which to base further studies and lead to developments in all types of fields. It’s like being given a new spanner - you’re not sure how beneficial the new tool will be until you use it.
‘We are absolutely delighted that we’ve been awarded this grant because it’s so difficult to get funding for this important type of work.’
Action Research, which is fast approaching its 50th anniversary, is dedicated to helping overcome disease and disability for children, families and the elderly across the UK. The charity’s Touching Lives Campaign aims to raise £2m for vital medical research and more details can be found at www.action.org.uk
For further information and interviews, please contact Nicole Duckworth in the Action Research press office on 01403 327403 Fax: 01403 210541, or email firstname.lastname@example.org ISDN facilities are available.
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