AUSTIN (KXAN) – A potential key to saving millions of lives from liver failure was designed for cheese makers. The device, Fibroscan, was originally used in detecting the ripeness of cheese. It’s being used in Austin to help detect fatty liver disease, which has become a growing epidemic in the United States.
Each year, more than three million Americans are diagnosed with fatty liver disease. Its brought on by poor diet, alcohol and hepatitis B & C. The disease begins with the body storing fat in the liver, which causes inflammation. This leads to fibrosis, then cirrhosis and eventually liver failure, according to Dr. Kenneth Ellis of Austin Gastroenterology.
Diagnosis: fatty liver disease
Catching fibrosis early is key to preventing cirrhosis, but finding it is challenging. “Until you develop cirrhosis, the part where you have extreme fibrosis, the liver can look completely normal,” says Dr. Ellis about looking for fibrosis with a CAT scan. Biopsies can find fibrosis, but they are invasive, don’t examine enough of the liver and risk complications.
The cheese makers’ tool
The inventors of Fibroscan say a secondary purpose for their cheese testing tool is in hospitals. It works by sending vibrations into the liver and then, based on how fast the vibration moves, the machine determines the liver’s stiffness. “The stiffer the liver, the more likely you are to have fibrosis,” says Dr. Ellis. The test is performed by placing a small emitter against your skin next to your liver. It must be aimed between your ribs, as the range of the vibration isn’t very far. When the vibration is released, it feels like someone flicking you with their finger.
The test is non-invasive and cheap, costing about $75. Dr. Ellis says one downside is if stiffness is detected, you might need a biopsy to further diagnose the cause. Also, it doesn’t work well on patients who are morbidly obese, because the range of the device is limited.
If the device detects fibrosis, the good news is that it can be reversed. According to Dr. Ellis, even severe fibrosis can be healed with medication and a healthy diet.