Many major diseases of the liver cause the organ to stiffen over time due to scarring, a condition known as fibrosis. Ultimately, such disorders--including hepatitis and fatty liver disease--can lead to cirrhosis, in which scarred tissue becomes an obstacle to blood flow and liver function. Today, doctors remove liver tissue through biopsy procedures to determine how far a patient's disease has progressed.
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Cirrhosis is the 12th leading cause of death by disease, killing about 26,000 people each year, according to the National Institutes of Health. that number is expected to rise due to the increased incidence of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease linked to the obesity epidemic.
Assistant biomedical engineering Professor Kathy Nightingale and her team have developed a non-invasive, ultrasonic radiation force-based method that might ultimately replace such tissue biopsies in the liver. The method sends painless, high-intensity sound waves through tissues and quantifies an organ's stiffness by measuring how fast the resulting shear wave ripples move.
Nightingale recently received four years of funding for her effort from the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering, and has plans to begin testing its utility in patients undergoing liver biopsy along with collaborators from Duke Medical Center.