Principal Investigator: Mary Rinella, MD
The most common cause of liver injury in the United States, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) occurs when extra fat builds up in liver cells. A serious offshoot of NAFLD, nonalcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH) can cause the liver to become inflamed. Those who develop NASH often require a liver transplant. Even after liver transplant, these patients face an uphill battle. They remain at particularly high risk of NASH recurrence, which can lead to graft failure and even death. Currently painful and invasive needle biopsies are the only way to diagnose and stage NASH.
As NASH reoccurs, byproducts of the disease process appear in the blood that may provide important clues to disease progression. Supported by a grant from the Digestive Health Foundation, Mary Rinella, MD, a gastroenterology and hepatology faculty member and her co-investigators hope to develop a blood-based alternative by identifying biomarkers that can accurately indicate the onset or recurrence of NASH. The investigators will focus on patients who have undergone liver transplantation at Northwestern Memorial Hospital from 1987 to present. Their pilot study will look at participants from the “Mini-Liver” cohort: patients who have had liver biopsy after transplantation, several of whom have recurrent NASH. Plasma samples are collected from all patients in this group and immediately stored at the time of biopsy for future reference and research studies.
Dr. Rinella’s study will involve the use of a validated blood serum-based biomarker panel test (OWLiver assay) that has shown great promise in diagnosing NASH in the non-transplant setting to test the existing biobanked plasma samples. The researchers will also review clinical data drawn from outpatient electronic medical records for their retrospective analysis. From this pilot study, investigators will determine if the OWLiver assay can be used as a platform for monitoring liver transplant patients and developing a treatment plan to prevent NASH recurrence. Ultimately, a simple blood test would allow for more frequent monitoring and earlier intervention with less discomfort and cost to patients.