Ultrasound with 'cheap' blood test improves early-stage liver cancer detection by 40 percent

por Lauren Dubinsky, Senior Reporter | February 20, 2018
Pathology Rad Oncology Ultrasound
May become standard practice
Researchers at UT Southwestern's Simmons Cancer Center have found that combining ultrasound imaging with a certain blood test increases the detection of early-stage liver cancer by 40 percent.

"Ultrasound has many advantages including being readily available, noninvasive, and cost effective. However, its ability to detect small cancers is low," Dr. G. Amit Singal, professor at the university, told HCB News. "Further, its ability to find small cancers can significantly differ between health systems, given differences in ultrasound expertise."

The blood test measures levels of high alpha fetaprotein (AFP), which is a plasma protein produced in abundance by the liver cells in the fetus. AFP levels are typically low in adults, but liver cancer can cause levels to spike.

"The blood test is cheap and is typically covered by insurance when done in patients with chronic liver disease for liver cancer screening," said Singal. "Further, it can be done at the time of other blood tests, making it very easy to do in clinical practice."

Abdominal ultrasound is the traditional screening method to detect liver cancer in patients with chronic liver disease. But clinical guidelines vary — with some calling for just ultrasound and others recommending a combination of ultrasound and the AFP blood test.

Singal is confident that the ultrasound/AFP test screening method will eventually become the standard for detecting liver cancer.

"The combination of ultrasound and alpha fetoprotein should be the current standard of care," he said. "However, there are ongoing studies that are evaluating new blood-based biomarkers that will hopefully further increase our ability to find cancers at an early stage in the future."

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