Touching Lives - November 2007
Tackling liver disease
The UK is experiencing an epidemic of liver disease, with death rates from cirrhosis increasing dramatically over the last 30 years. Many different things can put people at risk, including hepatitis C, drinking too much alcohol, inherited liver disorders and certain cancers. Most sufferers don’t realise how severely their liver is being damaged, as cirrhosis can remain silent for many years.Transplantation is currently the only effective treatment for many people with end-stage liver disease, but transplantation has risks and large rises in the number of people needing transplants are expected, making it increasingly difficult to meet the demand.
Dr Emma Haughton at the University of Birmingham is using her Action Medical Research grant to investigate what drives the inflammation of the liver, which can eventually lead to scarring and cirrhosis, by studying interactions between different types of cells. She is paying particular attention to a group of cells called human Hepatic Stellate Cells (hHSC). It is already known that these cells promote the formation of scar tissue in the liver, and Dr Haughton suspects that they may also have a key role in the development of cirrhosis. She thinks they may do this by influencing the behaviour of white blood cells, which, in turn, control inflammation.
Further down the line, findings from this study may lead to new treatments for people with liver disease. “If we can identify the processes that cause the excessive inflammation and scarring in chronic liver disease, this brings closer the development of new drugs that can hinder these processes and so halt the progression of liver disease”, explains Dr Haughton. She hopes such treatments could free people from their debilitating symptoms and reduce the need for transplants.