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Two Commons Tests Improve Liver Cancer Diagnosis by 40%

Armen Hareyan's picture
Liver cancer treatment and diagnosis research

An ultrasound paired with a blood test leads to a 40% improvement in cancer diagnoses, especially when it comes to liver cancer.


This new form of cancer diagnosis is highly effective. Rates of liver cancer are on the rise and thus, it is very important to diagnose the disease early to ensure higher chances of survival in those affected. The combination of modern ultrasound imaging and a blood test leads to a significantly improved diagnosis of liver cancer because most liver cancer cases in the United States are found at later stages when treatment is impossible and chances of survival are much lower.

Researchers at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center found in their current research that a new form of diagnosis leads to better early detection of liver cancer. The experts published the results of their study in the journal Gastroenterology.

The new method improves diagnosis by up to 40%

Combining ultrasound imaging with a high alpha-fetoprotein (AFP) blood test improves early-stage liver cancer diagnosis by as much as 40 percent, physicians say. "If the cancer is found early, we can perform curative therapies," explains study author Professor Dr. med. G. Amit Singal. Unfortunately, liver cancer is usually discovered at late stages when curative treatment is no longer an option, the expert adds. This leads to a reduced probability of surviving the disease.

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Liver cancer on the rise
While overall, rates of cancer are declining in the US, incidences of liver cancer have risen by 2.7% every year over the last decade. In the US, an estimated 40,700 new cases of liver cancer will be diagnosed in 2018, doctors report.

What are the risk factors for liver cancer?
Risk factors for liver cancer (also known as hepatocellular carcinoma or HCC) include, increased risk of hepatitis C infection, chronic alcohol consumption, and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease associated with diabetes and obesity. Symptoms of this form of cancer may include upper abdominal pain or swelling in this area, weight loss, loss of appetite, and general fatigue.

Ultrasound alone does not recognize many types of cancer. Liver cancer screening in patients with chronic liver disease has traditionally been performed with an abdominal ultrasound. Although ultrasounds are readily available and noninvasive, this form of examination does not recognize many cancers when they are still in their early stages, explains Dr. Singal.

How does the new method for diagnosis work?
The study found that testing the blood biomarker alpha-fetoprotein (AFP) greatly improves the detection of early-stage hepatocellular carcinoma. In using both tests, the likelihood of a successful diagnosis is increased from 45% (on ultrasound) to 63%. AFP is a so-called plasma protein. In adults, AFP levels are usually low, but liver cancer can lead to a noticeable increase.

Diagnostic methods must be adapted
“Our results highlight the importance of continued development and validation of blood-based biomarkers for liver cancer early detection. Most important, our results support a change in clinical practice and the routine use of ultrasound and biomarkers together for liver cancer screening,” said Dr. Singal, Dedman Family Scholar in Clinical Care at UT Southwestern, which is recognizing its 75th anniversary this year.

Also, don't miss this recent story about liver cancer treatment. Regorafenib Approved by FDA - Adds to Liver Cancer Treatment Options Currently Used.