Nonalcoholic Liver Disease and Genetics – Is There a Link?

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Woman on sofa with Nonalcoholic Liver Disease

What exactly is the relationship between genetics and disease? A new study led by Gilead Sciences, Inc. and the Renown Institute for Health Innovation (IHI) is aiming to find out. They are recruiting participants here in northern Nevada to understand the relationship between genetics and nonalcoholic liver disease. Joseph Grzymski, Principal Investigator at the Healthy Nevada Project and Chief Scientific Officer at Renown Health, shares why this study is so important and who should take part.

Many people are aware that heavy drinking can lead to liver disease. Yet they are unaware that there are other types of liver disease not caused by alcohol consumption. These types of liver disease are more difficult to diagnose, but are equally dangerous.

For example, Nonalcoholic Fatty Liver Disease (NAFLD) is caused by a build-up of fat in the liver. The most dangerous form is called Nonalcoholic Steatohepatitis (NASH). It causes inflammation and damages liver cells which can lead to fibrosis, or scarring of the liver, and decreased liver function. If NASH goes untreated, irreversible liver damage can occur, leading to cirrhosis, cancer, or even liver failure. These conditions can be fatal.

What’s most concerning about NASH is that the symptoms don’t typically cause pain and therefore aren’t noticeable. The good news is that a new local study is raising awareness about this disease by recruiting people who are at-risk for NASH.

Am I at risk for developing NASH?

The following factors put you at risk:

  • Obesity
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Metabolic syndrome
  • High blood lipids, such as cholesterol and triglycerides

Related: Underlying Conditions Explained and How to Know if You Have One

Does having a family member with nonalcoholic liver disease increase my risk?

We do not know a lot about inheriting NASH, although a lot risk factors run in families. One goal of this study is to better understand the genetic component of NASH. There are certainly other risks too, such as environmental and behavioral risk factors. However, we don’t yet have a good grasp on how these impact NASH risk.

How is NASH diagnosed?

Diagnosis is traditionally done with either a liver ultrasound or biopsy. However, both procedures are expensive and the invasive biopsy has risks. Therefore doctors often use risk factors or less invasive blood tests for diagnosis. This NASH study will include a new blood test called the enhanced liver function (ELF) test. Doctors and researchers have data suggesting that the ELF test is a better diagnostic test for NASH risk. Conducting this cutting-edge test with study participants allows them to share results with their doctors to ensure the best care.

What can I reduce my NASH risk?

Limiting exposure to the risk factors of NASH often lowers risk. Eating a healthy diet, maintaining a recommended weight and exercising regularly can proactively lower your risk.

Is NASH curable?

Currently there are no approved treatments or therapies for NASH. That’s why it’s important to participate in this study and help us find a cure.

How will this study help?

We want to better understand why some people develop NASH while others do not. To do this, we have to compare data from lots of people. Furthermore, we hope this study will help reveal the cause NASH. From there, we can develop effective treatments.

What are the benefits of participating?

  • Contributing to important research helping scientists understand the causes of NASH and develop life-saving treatments
  • Learn more about you risk for developing NASH
  • Benefits of participating in the Healthy Nevada Project, including valuable ancestry and health insights
  • Many participants will also receive an enhanced liver function test (ELF) which can be useful in further assessing risk for developing NASH.
  • Participation is free

Who’s eligible to participate?

Do you live in northern Nevada with a NASH diagnosis or have a family member who has NASH? If so, we encourage you to to participate. If you have one or more of the following risk factors: obesity, type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome and dyslipidemia, you may also be a good candidate for the study. If your doctor has found elevated liver enzymes (or elevated liver function), we encourage you to participate.

The two consent forms you’ll fill out to be considered for the study can be found here and here. If you submit the forms and meet the criteria, a Healthy Nevada Project Ambassador will contact you directly by phone and/or email. If you have questions, please reach out to the study leads directly at RenownIHI@renown.org or 775-982-6914.

Learn More About The Healthy Nevada Project

Since launching on September 15, 2016, the Healthy Nevada Project has become the largest community-based population health study in the world. Ultimately, the Project aspires to offer genetic testing to any Nevadan interested in learning more about their health and genetic risks while serving as a model for other communities across the country.

Learn More

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