A newly developed traffic-light colour-coded blood test can reveal hidden liver damage caused by drinking above recommended alcohol limits. The UK doctors who devised the test say anyone who regularly drinks more than three or four bottles of wine a week, for example, is at significant risk.
Ultimately, GPs could offer the test to patients, especially since many people do not recognise unsafe drinking and often damage is only noticed at a late stage as the liver starts to fail.
The traffic-light test can give an early colour-coded warning - green means damage is unlikely, amber means there is a 50:50 chance it is there, and red means the liver is most probably damaged and potentially irreversibly. It combines a routine liver test doctors already use with two others that measure the level of scarring, also known as fibrosis.
The University of Southampton researchers tested more than 1,000 patients at their liver clinic and found that the traffic-light test was also good at predicting the prognosis of liver disease. Half of the liver patients had a red traffic light and (of a subset of these who were followed up) about a quarter died over the next five years, whereas none of the patients with a green test died or developed complications.
Dr Nick Sheron, who devised the test and his team have also been investigating how the test can be used in primary care. Preliminary results in about 400 hazardous drinkers from 10 GP surgeries suggest many patients are willing to be tested and that learning the result can change behaviour.
A third of those given a green result cut down on their alcohol intake, while more than two-thirds of those given a red or amber result subsequently drank less. As well as people who drink more than the recommended amount, people who drink and are overweight or have type-two diabetes should consider getting tested, said Dr Sheron. This is because they are at increased risk of liver damage.
Source: Developing a ‘traffic light’ test with potential for rational early diagnosis of liver fibrosis and cirrhosis in the community. Nick Sheron et al. British Journal of General Practice 2012;62 (602): 616.