Moving Away from Liver Biopsies

A recent review (EB Tapper, AS-F Lok. NEJM 2017; 377: 756-68) provides a good review of liver biopsy and liver imaging. My take of this review is that it highlights the emergence of noninvasive tools (imaging & fibrosis markers) which may supplant liver biopsy.  This article does not delve into how more widespread genetic testing may obviate a liver biopsy in many cases as well. The article notes that about 8% of persons in the U.S. have elevated liver enzymes.

Liver biopsy:

  • “A typical liver biopsy samples one fifty-thousandth of the liver.”
  • Limitations of liver biopsy: sampling error is common, biopsy interpretation is subjective, and biopsies can cause complications.  Pain is noted in 30-50% of patients, serious bleeding in 0.6%, injury to other organs (0.08%), and in rare cases, death (up  to 0.1%).
  • Cost: “the average direct cost of a percutaneous liver biopsy is $1448 (in 2016 U.S. dollars).” Transjugular biopsies are much more expensive.  In addition, there are unmeasured indirect costs, due to missing work.

Some prior blogs on liver biopsy

Blood tests:

  • The article details the formulas for biomarker measurements that predict the risk of fibrosis, inlcuding FIB-4, Lok Index, and NAFLD Fibrosis Score.
  • In most liver diseases, aspartate aminotransferase levels “exceed alanine aminotransferase levels when cirrhosis develops.”
  • Thrombocytopenia “is the earliest indicator of cirrhosis among routine blood tests…[due to] diminished liver function (throbopoietin underproduction) and portal hypertension (splenic sequestration).”
  • Proprietary algorithms to assess fibrosis have variable sensitivity, specificity –include FibroTest (aka FibroSure [LabCorp]), FibroMeter, HepaScore (Quest), FIBROSpect, and the Enhanced Liver Fibrosis Score.

Imaging:

  • Elastography with vibration-controlled transient elastography (VCTE) OR magnetic resonance elastography
  • “Elastography offers excellent negative likelihood ratios for advanced fibrosis but much poorer positive likelihood ratios.”
  • Patients with severe obesity are less likely to obtain adequate study with VCTE and could need magnetic resonance elastography to assess fibrosis.

My take: Noninvasive tests have already sharply reduced the need for liver biopsy.

Related posts:

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