Fibrosis Testing; New Options On The Way

There is a lot of jargon in here, hang with me.

Now about Cirrhosis: You have Hepatitis C and your doctor wants to check your liver for damage

The gold standard for diagnosis is a liver biopsy. This procedure takes place in the hospital. While you are under a local anesthetic, a physician uses a needle with grabbers to remove a tiny sample from your liver. Once the biopsy is completed the patient must lay flat for 6-8 hours to confirm a lack of bleeding, then go home and do nothing strenuous for days.

The sample is studied by a pathologist to assess liver scarring (fibrosis). While liver biopsies are invasive and do have inherent dangers (excessive bleeding, infection, hypotension), they also have variable results, depending on who is reading the results. It is better to have two pathologists study the specimen but this isn’t always practical.

There are promising alternative tests. New tests can assess the severity of the fibrosis in individuals at high risk of developing liver cirrhosis (e.g., chronic alcoholism, chronic viral hepatitis). These tests include breath testing, blood tests, and imaging techniques.

  • Ultrasound initially showed 94% accuracy, but that score has been downgraded. But in the US it is cheap and widely available
  • Ultrasound with contrast media is about 79% accurate but contrast media is expensive and not always used in compromised livers
  • Doppler checks the blood flow through the hepatic vein. This shows overlap of staging cirrhosis and therefore not a good choice
  • CT Scans look at the whole abdomen so subtleties can be missed
  • MRI has an accuracy of 80-89% but requires a high level of technique which is not always available clinically and is expensive
  • Biomarkers can establish cirrhosis and non-cirrhosis but not grades of scarring
  • Biomarkers: Indirect
    • Fibrotest is useful in diagnosing and grading fibrosis. This test has established measurements and may be used in place of a liver biopsy for patients with Hepatitis C
    • FIB4 uses a panel of biomarkers and can also be used instead of liver biopsy.
  • Biomarkers: Direct
    • HA (hyaluronic acid) normally occurs outside the circulatory system but can be evaluated by update in scarred vs normal livers. Scarred livers leave more HA behind while normal livers convert more to remove it from the blood.
    • PIIINP and PIINP
    • TIMP-1
    • YKL-40

All the tests listed above have varying degrees of accuracy but liver biopsy is still the standard for staging of scaring (fibrosis).1

Symptoms

The early stages of cirrhosis often produce no symptoms. As scar tissue replaces healthy cells, the liver begins to fail, and symptoms may become evident. The severity of symptoms depends on the extent of liver damage.

Because the liver is crucial for many metabolic activities, cirrhosis impacts a wide range of the body’s functions, including nutrient and hormone metabolism, blood clotting, and processing of ammonia and other toxic wastes. Many of the symptoms of cirrhosis are directly related to disruption of these functions. However, most of these symptoms can also be caused by other conditions, so it is important to consult with your doctor if you experience any of these symptoms, particularly if you have risk factors that increase your likelihood of developing cirrhosis.

Early symptoms of cirrhosis include:

  • Fatigue and weakness (related to anemia and altered nutrient metabolism)
  • Poor appetite
  • Depression
  • Nausea
  • Weight loss
  • In men: A decrease in liver metabolism can contribute to: Impotence; Reduced testicle size; Enlarged, tender breasts; and/or Loss of interest in sex—due to altered liver metabolism of sex hormones
  • Small, red spider-like blood vessels under the skin—caused by increased pressure in the tiny blood vessels due to liver congestion
  • Increased sensitivity to drugs—due to reduced ability of the liver to inactivate them

Symptoms become more pronounced as cirrhosis progresses. Later symptoms, some of which are due to complications, include:

  • Reddened or blotchy palms
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Ulcers
  • Fever and other signs of infection—due to altered immune function
  • Peripheral neuropathy
  • Frequent nosebleeds, skin bruising, or bleeding gums—resulting from decreased liver synthesis of clotting factors
  • Ascites —water retention and swelling abdomen caused by obstructed blood flow through the liver and reduced synthesis of the protein albumin
  • Bacterial peritonitis—infection of ascites causing abdominal pain and fever
  • Itching—caused by deposition of bile products in the skin
  • Jaundice —yellowing of the skin or eyes due to build-up of bile pigments (bilirubin)
  • Vomiting blood—due to swollen veins in the esophagus that burst
  • Encephalopathy and coma—mental changes, including forgetfulness, trouble concentrating, confusion, and agitation, caused by the build-up of ammonia in the blood
  • Decreased urine output and dark urine—caused by kidney dysfunction or failure
  • Liver cancer

This is an extensive list of symptoms but not complete. Each person is different. Remember that by taking care of your liver, some damage is reversible.2,3

  1. World Journal of Gastroenterol. 2014 Dec 7: 20 (45).
  2. American Liver Foundation.
  3. National Library of Medicine.

So Called Hepatitis C Science Panel on Bias

I read the transcript of a panel discussion regarding Hepatitis C and bias.  The facilitator was a Ph.D. who did not share her area of expertise. My bias is showing here.  Is she knowledgeable about Hepatitis C or bias,  or is she a facilitator for hire?  The panel was a registered nurse, a social worker and a patient, all with Hepatitis C.  Sounds promising.

But the summary of the discussion was this:

  • We need more money from the government to educate people with Hepatitis C about treatments.
  • We need more money from the government so we can support Hepatitis C patients in the same way HIV patients have been supported, with more teams (I am not clear as to what this statement means).
  • The patient’s affirmation was “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me” and “I learned a lot from a support group made of fellow Hepatitis C patients”.

I am with the patient, the tools are within as opposed to without. If solutions tie to outside money or the government, no progress is  made  and we are stuck. But if a new patient begins his journey with only a support group and he feels like shit (which he will), the danger of isolation is there and almost guaranteed.  I suggest adding a couple of strong friends or family members who can take turns helping you ride this bull, to keep you on for the eight seconds  (treatment duration). Forgive my analogy, I am from Texas where that makes sense. Two wonderful people for me were my husband and  the nurse. But, each patient experience is unique.  Keep trying until you find who and what helps you the most.

The pharmaceutical companies are reaching out to the masses.  They are talking about testing new treatments.  The companies are portraying patients as members of society, people who the general population can relate to. Not just the parrot heads and junkies as portrayed in the past.

parrothead BTW, I overheard my first hepatologist refer to Hep C patients in the waiting room as parrot heads (followers of Jimmy Buffett). That was my introduction to the label. I shared my thoughts with him about that descriptor for patients.

The pharmaceutical company  groundswell will reduce the stigma of having Hepatitis C.  Sure the motive is profit. So who cares?  Not a cured person like me (cured makes me sound like a ham). I worked in the pharmaceutical world for a quarter of a century. Research departments, when not linked to marketing, do great work. That is all I need to know. Let the insurance companies fight out the money issues. Give the insurance companies something to focus on other than patients. Oops, my damn bias is showing. I am curious to see how the “Affordable Care Act” (Obama Care) approaches  Hepatitis C.

As the panel patient points out, it is my efforts that will provide my shield from stereotypes. At least until the drug company marketing departments get the job done.

check out http://www.hepatitiscnews.com where I, and other people with Hepatitis C, share information.