A new study conducted by a research team at the University of Texas Southwestern (UT Southwestern) Simmons Cancer Center in the US has shown that the combination of ultrasound imaging with a specific blood test can increase the detection of early-stage liver cancer by about 40%.

The blood test involves analysis for high alpha-fetoprotein (AFP) levels, which are known to rise in liver cancer cases.

With the National Cancer Institute (NIC) report revealing that liver cancer incidence has increased by 2.7% per year over the past decade, researchers stress the importance of early diagnosis of this disease to improve patient survival.

UT Southwestern Internal Medicine and Clinical Sciences associate professor Dr Amit Singal said: “If the cancer is found early, then we can perform curative therapies, allowing patients to live many years.

“Unfortunately, most liver cancer in the US is discovered at later stages, when curative treatment is not possible and survival is much worse.”

“Adjunction with blood biomarker alpha-fetoprotein enhanced the identification of early-stage hepatocellular carcinoma to 63%.”

While diagnosis for liver cancer is commonly done with an abdominal ultrasound, Singal says that this technique misses many cancers during early stages.

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In the latest study, the researchers found that adjunction with blood biomarker alpha-fetoprotein enhanced the identification of early-stage hepatocellular carcinoma to 63%, compared to 45% with ultrasound alone.

Singal further added: “Our results highlight the importance of continued development and validation of blood-based biomarkers for liver cancer early detection.

“Most importantly, our results support a change in clinical practice and the routine use of ultrasound and biomarkers together for liver cancer screening.”