Chemist Vincent Rotello at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, with colleagues at University College London (UCL), U.K., announced that they had developed a "quick and robust" blood test that can detect liver damage before symptoms appear.

This blood test can detect liver damage before symptoms appear, offering what they hope is a significant advance in early detection of liver disease. Details appear in Advanced Materials.

Their new method can detect liver fibrosis, the first stage of liver scarring that can lead to fatal disease if left unchecked, from blood sample in 30-45 minutes, the authors note. They point out that liver disease is a leading cause of premature mortality in the United States and U.K., and is rising. It often goes unnoticed until late stages of the disease when the damage is irreversible.

For this work, Rotello and his team at UMass Amherst's Institute of Applied Life Sciences (IALS) designed a sensor that uses polymers coated with fluorescent dyes that bind to blood proteins based on their chemical processes. The dyes change in brightness and color, offering a different signature or blood protein pattern.

He said, "This platform provides a simple and inexpensive way of diagnosing the disease with the potential for both personal health monitoring and applications in developing parts of the world."

The outcome of blood tests

The UCL team tested the sensor by comparing results from small blood samples equivalent to finger-prick checks from 65 people, in three balanced groups of healthy patients and among those with early-stage and late-stage fibrosis, which was determined using the Enhanced Liver Fibrosis (ELF) test, the existing benchmark for liver fibrosis detection.

Co-author William Peveler, a chemist now at the University of Glasgow, adds, "By comparing the different samples, the sensor array identified a 'fingerprint' of liver damage. It's the first time this approach has been validated in something as complex as blood, to detect something as important as liver disease."

Peter Reinhart, director of UMass Amherst's IALS, said, "These exciting findings epitomize the mission of IALS to translate excellent basic science into diagnostics, therapeutic candidates, and personalized health monitoring devices to improve human health and well-being."

Peveler adds, "This may open the door to a cost-effective regular screening program thanks to its simplicity, low cost, and robustness. We're addressing a vital need for point-of-care diagnostics and monitoring, which could help millions of people access the care they need to prevent fatal liver disease."

Rotello explains that the sensing strategy uses a "signature-based" approach that is highly versatile and should be useful in other areas. "A key feature of this sensing strategy is that it is not disease-specific, so it applies to a wide spectrum of conditions, which opens up the possibility of diagnostic systems that can track health status, providing both disease detection and monitoring wellness."