Liver Cancer Is Tough to Diagnose — Here’s Why

Doctors don't always know why certain patients develop the illness, but there are factors all of us must consider

by Manny Alvarez, MD | Updated 05 Sep 2017 at 11:26 AM

You know how important your digestive system is to your life, but you might not think about its importance in your normal day-to-day.

For instance, the liver plays an enormous role in digestion and other essential functions and causes much havoc when it’s not performing properly. Worldwide, however, several hundred thousand people know firsthand the effects of an unhealthy liver because of liver cancer.

According to the American Cancer Society, 700,000 people will be diagnosed with this serious disease this year. Over 600,000 will die from the cancer. While liver cancer does happen in the United States, its most dense prevalence is actually in the less developed areas of Africa and Southeast Asia.

As with many other cancers, doctors don't always know exactly why a patient develops this particular kind. Sometimes, it simply occurs without much risk or warning.

On the other hand, several factors can increase a person's chances of getting the disease, including a previous hepatitis B infection, cirrhosis, or diabetes. Possibly one of the most preventable risk factors for liver cancer is excessive alcohol consumption.

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New diagnosis. Liver cancer can be difficult to spot in its early stages. For developing countries, this cancer will often go unnoticed until the cancer spreads, making it even harder to treat.

When a patient actually shows symptoms, he may experience unintentional weight loss, upper abdominal pain, nausea, abdominal swelling, or jaundice.

Then, to identify the disease, doctors usually need to take blood samples, perform a CT scan or MRI, or biopsy the liver itself. As you can imagine, these tests require a medical visit with considerable costs, a fact that may hinder people in developing countries.

Liver cancer often hides its symptoms until later stages.

Recently, though, new research might just offer the help that people in these countries need — and at a surprisingly low cost. To battle the thousands of deaths that occur due to liver cancer each year, researchers from the University of Utah developed a promising test that gets little more involved than the average home pregnancy test.

This test works by taking a small sample of a patient's blood, saliva, teardrop or urine. Then the test is designed to selectively capture specific biomarkers common in identifying liver cancer.

After adding a drop of gold nanoparticles, the patient will see a red spot if he has the biomarkers for liver cancer. Researchers have a clinical trial for this test scheduled in Mongolia for 2019.

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Treatment by a virus? Usual liver cancer treatments include much of the same treatment as other cancers. Depending on which stage it's in, patients may be able to opt for a liver transplant, an option only offered to a select few early-stage patients. Other treatments involve removing the tumor through surgery, localized heating or freezing treatments, radiation, or drugs that target the liver cancer.

On the other hand, researchers are exploring new possible treatments for this disease as well. For example, one research team in China is capitalizing on a natural virus in the body as a treatment for liver tumors.

The virus, called an oncolytic virus, actually targets and kills cancer cells naturally. Because the virus has a low potency, however, it does not kill enough cancer cells to shrink a tumor on its own.

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Still, the Chinese researchers wanted to use the virus's ability to target cancer cells, and thus sought a way to increase its potency. Upon further study, the team found a molecule that could do just that. They then created a compound of the virus along with this molecule and injected it directly into the tumor.

According to the researchers, the compound made the virus over 3,000 times more effective than its natural potency. This new potency could make the virus an efficient treatment for reducing liver tumors as a pre-operative therapy or palliative step. They plan to begin clinical testing for this treatment sometime in 2018.

Because liver cancer often hides its symptoms until later stages, doctors have a difficult time catching it early on. Areas such as Africa and East Asia need testing options for people who cannot afford expensive imaging diagnostics for liver cancer. In the near future, many people may be able to choose an at-home test as well as less invasive treatment for this disease.

Dr. Manny Alvarez serves as Fox News Channel's senior managing health editor. He also serves as chairman of the department of obstetrics/gynecology and reproductive science at Hackensack University Medical Center in New Jersey. This Fox News is used by permission.

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