Southampton trial could give first liver disease treatment for teenagers

teenager group

Southampton researchers are using scans to see if a food supplement can improve liver health in obese teenagers at risk of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.

The NHS estimates that one in three people in the UK could have the early stages of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD), yet there is currently no licensed treatment for this disease.

If caught early, changes to diet and lifestyle can help to prevent NAFLD from progressing and damaging the liver - but this is often difficult, as the early stages of the disease have no symptoms.

A new study at University Hospital Southampton NHS Foundation Trust, run by Axcella, is using MRI scans of the liver to see if a food supplement for obese teenagers can improve their liver health.

Catching it early

Those most at risk of developing NAFLD are overweight or obese. Caused by a build-up of fat in the liver, people with the early stages rarely show any symptoms and are unlikely to realise they have it.

Whilst it is uncommon for early stage NAFLD to cause any harm, if untreated it can develop into the more serious forms of the disease non-alcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH), fibrosis or cirrhosis. 

As almost a third of children aged two to 15 in the UK now overweight or obese, more young people are expected to develop NAFLD as they reach adolescence.

Scanning the liver

Obese teenagers aged 12-17 years old are taking part in the study, which aimed to see if taking a specially formulated protein supplement could improve their liver health. 

The researchers are aiming to recruit around 30 participants. Half will take the supplement powder in water twice a day with meals for 13 weeks while the other half with take a placebo treatment.

To see if this has any affect on their liver health, they will have magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans before and after the treatment to look for indicators of fat deposits. 

Southampton is perfectly placed to do this, with extensive expertise in NAFLD research, led by Professor Chris Byrne from NIHR Southampton Biomedical Research Centre, as well as consultant radiologist Dr David Breen’s expertise using MRI scans to analyse the liver.  

 “Fatty liver in obese children is becoming a huge public health burden, given its strong association with type 2 diabetes, future cardiovascular risk and many other complications,” said Professor Saul Faust, director of the NIHR Southampton Clinical Research Facility and principal investigator for this study.

“To date, we have been encouraged by the level of interest of clinical investigators, their adolescent subjects and parents in connection with participating in the ongoing Axcella study.”

Posted on Tuesday 12 November 2019