German universities and drug companies join in major EU research project

German universities and pharmaceutical companies are taking part in groundbreaking research into biomarkers for non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD). The EUR 34 million project is called "Liver Investigation: Testing Marker Utility in Steatohepatitis," or LITMUS.

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The German universities and clinics involved in the project are Würzburg, Aachen, and Mainz. Boehringer Ingelheim International and Sanofi-Aventis Deutschland are the German-based pharmaceuticals companies playing a role in LITMUS. In all, 47 universities, research institutions, and drug companies are taking part. Fifteen European, plus Israel and the US are represented. The project is being coordinated by the University of Newcastle in the United Kingdom.

According to a University of Wurzburg statement, as much as 30 percent of the world's population suffers from NAFLD. Closely connected to obesity and Type-2 diabetes, NAFLD is caused when fat accumulates in the liver, causing inflammation and scar tissue in some cases. This can result in cirrhosis and liver cancer as well as increase the risk of heart attacks and strokes.

The doctor directing in hepatology and gastroenterology at Würzburg University Clinic, Andreas Geier, says "Although NAFLD can be detected in many people, it causes long-term damage in only about one in ten of them. The big challenge is, identifying the patients whose illness can advance as far as cirrhosis and liver cancer."

An invasive, surgical biopsy is currently the only way to diagnose the condition. The aim of the LITMUS project is to develop, validate, and establish a new biomarker for NAFLD. Within the LITMUS, Würzburg is the main center for recruiting patients in Germany. "A reference laboratory for breath-based diagnosis will also be based at Würzburg University Clinic," says Dr. Geier.