New test may help diagnose liver problem in kids

A new medical imaging technique can help doctors better detect non-alcoholic fatty liver disease in children, new research suggests.

Five to eight million kids have this liver condition

Five to eight million children in the United States have the condition, but most cases go undiagnosed, according to the University of California, San Diego researchers. Children with the disease have large droplets of fat in at least 5 percent of their liver cells.

Obesity and diabetes are risk factors for non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, which can lead to hepatitis, liver scarring, cirrhosis and liver cancer.

Read: What is liver disease?

"Currently, diagnosis of [non-alcoholic fatty liver disease] requires a liver biopsy, which is not always available or performed. This leads to both misdiagnosis and missed diagnoses, hampering patient care and progress in clinical research," study first author Dr. Jeffrey Schwimmer said in a university news release. Schwimmer is a professor of clinical paediatrics at UCSD and director of the Fatty Liver Clinic at Rady Children's Hospital-San Diego.

"Thus, a non-invasive method for diagnosing and/or evaluating [the disease] has the potential to impact millions of children," he added.

Magnitude-based MRI

The researchers tested a new imaging method called magnitude-based MRI that might make it easier to diagnose the condition in children.

The new MRI technique was assessed in 174 children who were having liver biopsies. Depending on how it is used, magnitude-based MRI could correctly identify 65 percent to 90 percent of children as having or not having fatty liver disease, the researchers said.

Read: Treating liver disease

However, further refinements are needed before this or any other MRI technique can be used to diagnose non-alcoholic fatty liver disease in children, Schwimmer said in the news release.

One expert agreed that more study is needed.

"It's very interesting to see that researchers have devised an MRI imaging technique to better detect non-alcoholic fatty liver disease in children, which is a growing problem in the United States as the number of obese children steadily increases," said Dr. David Bernstein, chief of the division of hepatology at North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset, New York.

Too low to consider MRI a worthy replacement

But the current effectiveness of the technique "is simply too low to consider MRI a worthy replacement for liver biopsy, the gold standard detection method," Bernstein noted.

Plus, the MRI cannot detect the levels of inflammation or scarring that the build-up of fat can cause in the liver, Bernstein said.

The study was published in the journal Hepatology.

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Image: MRI Scan, doctor and little boy from Shutterstock

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