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New Lease of Life for Liver Research

In a new collaboration, GE Healthcare and Takeda Group have announced that they will be combining efforts to develop new diagnostic techniques and drugs for hepatic fibrosis (scarring of the liver), along with other liver diseases.

The human body is a formidable self-healing machine. Cut your skin, and you will immediately start producing elastin, fibrinogen and other substances that seal over the wound, and begin laying down fibers of collagen, the main ingredient of scar tissue. It may not be the same skin as before, it won’t be as elastic or supple, but it will protect you from infection and let you live to fight another day.

MR Elastogram, showing different densities of liver and spleen tissue (colored).

MR Elastography image, showing different densities of liver and spleen tissue (colored).

The organ that trumps all others for its healing factor is the liver. It is the only organ in the human body that is capable of true regeneration. As little as 25% of a liver can grow back into a whole functioning organ. But consistent damage to the liver over the course of several years can make its seemingly miraculous healing process go haywire, giving rise to a serious condition called liver fibrosis.

The liver, when damaged or inflamed, will grow collagen-rich scar tissue much like the skin does. The difference is that this scar tissue will then be gradually broken down to be replaced by healthy, fully-functioning liver tissue.

Essentially, liver fibrosis is the result of an imbalance between scar tissue buildup and breakdown. Collagenous tissue, which cannot function as normal liver tissue, accumulates in excess and forms growing lumps of hard, tough, fibrous material where there was once healthy liver. This leads to jaundice, cirrhosis and ultimately liver failure.

While not a disease in and of itself, liver fibrosis is a dangerous symptom of many liver diseases that affect a growing number of people worldwide, such as alcohol addiction, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) and hepatitis.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 20 million people worldwide are suffering from NAFLD and around 3% of the world’s population have hepatitis C. A 2013 study by the American Association for the Study of Liver Diseases showed that deaths caused by hepatitis B and C equate to the deaths caused respectively by HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria.

Currently, the most common way to check the liver for fibrosis is to physically insert a needle into the liver through the skin and extract a tissue sample for biopsy in the lab. The partnership will further develop and encourage the use of noninvasive alternatives, including magnetic resonance (MR) Elastography technology. Unlike conventional MR, MR Elastography uses the data gathered by the scanner to work out the elasticity, or stretchiness, of different tissues. The less elastic a tissue is, the more likely it is to be collagen-rich scar tissue.

“It gives me great pleasure to have been able to build this alliance with GE Healthcare to develop therapeutic drugs to treat liver diseases,” said Tadataka Yamada, Chief Medical & Scientific Officer at Takeda. “This alliance will assist efforts to develop new therapeutic options that ease the burden on the patient. Moving forward, we will continue to put the patient first and incorporate a wide range of innovations into the field of drug discovery.”

The collaboration will be of special benefit to developing nations like the US, the UK and Japan, who are witnessing rapid ageing of their populations and will likely see a spike in liver disease, particularly NAFLD. Over the past couple of decades, NAFLD and non-alcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH) have become the number one cause of liver disease in the developed world. More recent data confirm that NAFLD and NASH are becoming equally pressing healthcare concerns in the Middle East, Far East, Africa, the Caribbean, and Latin America. Early diagnosis of liver fibrosis as well as the development of drugs to control the progression of liver disease will be key to stopping the growing problem in its tracks.

“It is extremely gratifying to me that, through this collaboration, our technologies will be of use in the development of treatments for the liver diseases that are of particular importance not just in Asia, but worldwide,” said Akihiko Kumagai, Chairman of GE Healthcare Japan with overall responsibility for liver disease programs. “We have been focusing efforts on developing technologies to help provide solutions for liver cancer. As one location in our global research and development network, Japan, whose strategy is to create solutions for an aging population, has been a driving force behind these efforts. Innovations by GE will continue to contribute to the health of people all around the world.”

More Information

Takeda Pharmaceutical Company

NAFLD

What is liver fibrosis?

MR Elastography

WHO liver cirrhosis statistics

American Association for the Study of Liver Diseases