A Chinese genomics firm says it has found a way to detect liver cancer linked to hepatitis B months before it can be picked up by other methods.

The conclusion was based on a study by Genetron Health and the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences Cancer Hospital using a method called HCCscreen, which applies artificial intelligence to look for tumour-related mutations in DNA in blood.

The researchers found that the new method could pick up early signs of the cancer in people who had tested negative based on traditional alpha-fetoprotein (AFP) and ultrasound examinations.

Genetron Health chief executive Wang Sizhen said early detection was important because it significantly increased the chances of survival.

“The study is a breakthrough in genomics technology and it’s likely to help hepatitis B virus carriers, whose risk of liver cancer is much higher,” Wang said.

The researchers first used  AI Tech. to identify biomarkers common in known cases of a type of liver cancer called hepatocellular carcinoma, or HCC.

The team then developed the HCCscreen technique to look for those markers and used it on 331 people with hepatitis B who had tested negative for liver cancer in AFP and ultrasound exams.

Twenty-four people tested positive with HCCscreen and were tracked over eight months, with four eventually being diagnosed with early-stage liver cancer.

The four patients had surgery to remove the tumours and the other 20 in the positive group had a second HCCscreen test, with mixed results. Wang said all participants in the group of 20 would continue to be monitored.

“This is the first large-scale prospective study on early diagnosis [of liver cancer],” he said.

The results were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences earlier this month.

There are about 93 million people with hepatitis B in China and carriers of the virus have a much higher risk of developing liver cancer.

Liver cancer is generally difficult to detect in its early stages, and twice-yearly ultrasounds and AFP tests for the disease are recommended for high-risk groups such as people with hepatitis B virus infections, or cirrhosis – scarring of liver tissue.

But in China, most HCC cases were detected at advanced stage, the authors of the study wrote.

According to the National Cancer Centre, 466,000 people were diagnosed with liver cancer and 422,000 died from the disease in China in 2015.

Wang said the company aimed to commercialise the technology but even then it would take time to ensure it was affordable.

“[High-risk] people need to have regular screening. This is important for public health but the technology must be affordable enough to be widespread,” Wang said. “The ultimate goal of this study is to develop a product that people in China can afford.”

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