Accumulation of fat in the liver, known as fatty liver disease, is experienced by over 5.5 million Australians, including more than 40 percent of all adults over the age of 50.
Fatty liver develops from a combination of both genetic and environmental causes, which influence the age of onset and severity of the disease. Experts are now describing the condition as a hidden epidemic, which is driving up rates of liver transplant, contributing to a range of illnesses and ultimately death.
Fatty liver disease usually has no early symptoms and diagnoses with current technologies mostly comes too late to prevent major illness.
But now, for the first time in a study published in the prestigious scientific journal, Nature, a team of researchers from the Baker Heart and Diabetes Institute, University of California and University of Sydney, have discovered biomarkers in the blood that can predict the accumulation of toxic fats in the liver, which are a sign of early fatty liver disease. These predictions can be made based on the lipid (fats) profile in the blood.
Dr Benjamin Parker, who was an NHMRC Research Fellow at the Charles Perkins Centre and the School of Life and Environmental Sciences at the University of Sydney and drove the project, said the study aimed to understand the underlying mechanisms of metabolic diseases such as diabetes.
“Some individuals are more susceptible than others and we don't completely understand why,” Dr Parker said.
“Our study used a new approach to link mutations in DNA to changes in fat metabolism. We have identified several new drug targets and biomarkers to treat or monitor fatty liver disease which is strongly associated with diabetes."
Our approach will be critical in the era of precision medicine which aims to treat patients on a more individual basis.
Professor David James from the University of Sydney’s Charles Perkins Centre described the study as a technological tour de force that represented one of the most futuristic approaches for examining complex diseases like diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
“We have simultaneously measured many different layers of the biological system including lipids and other metabolites as well as thousands of proteins and integrated this with genetic information,” he said.
“This has given us an exciting view of how complex diseases like fatty liver occur. Most importantly this approach represents a new way forward in precision medicine, an approach which will transform health care.”
Dr Anna Calkin, co-author and head of the Baker Institute’s Lipid Metabolism and Cardiometabolic Disease Laboratory said: “With more and more younger people getting diagnosed with fatty liver, it is a growing issue in Australia and overseas. Unfortunately, there are few effective tools available to treat this condition in its early stages. Therefore, we need to identify new targets for drug development, and this new study has provided some promising early stage results”.
The team is now hoping to establish why some people are more prone to fatty liver disease than others.
“Our next step will be to use bigger data sets to further solidify these results,” Dr Calkin said.