The 2013 International Liver Congress – Welcome to the Future of Liver Health

The 2013 International Liver Congress – Welcome to the Future of Liver Health

By Elizabeth Boskey

Elizabeth_Boskey_ViroChannelElizabeth Boskey, Ph.D. is a Certified Health Education Specialist and A.A.S.E.C.T. Certified Sexuality Educator as well as an independent scholar, writer, and teacher focusing on sexual health.

Although she is best known as the Guide to Sexually Transmitted Diseases at About.com, where she writes a consumer-focused site about sexual health, she has been enjoying writing more in depth content for health professionals at ViroChannel.

A researcher herself, Elizabeth has published several peer-reviewed papers on topics in women’s reproductive health and is on the editorial boards of the American Journal of Sex Education and Contemporary Sexuality – the journal of the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors, and Therapists.

She has also written or contributed to a number of popular science books including America Debates Genetic DNA Testing, The Truth About Rape, and The Invision Guide to Sexual Health.

It’s the first day of the 2013 International Liver Congress (ILC2013), and the participants are already excited to learn about the newest research in liver health. Most of the attending scientists are spending their mornings on in-depth study of the topics that most interest them. The European Association for the Study of the Liver (EASL) has decided to open the conference with a series of three hour joint workshops on topics ranging from fluid management in critically ill liver patients to the newest treatments for viral hepatitis.

As has been the case at many liver-related conferences over the past few years, some of the biggest buzz continues to be about the use of direct acting antiviral (DAA) therapies for hepatitis C. These drugs offer a new hope for viral eradication in many infected patients, and are the subject of well over a dozen abstracts being presented at ILC2013. One question that is clearly on a lot of people’s minds is whether, and when, these drugs will be ready for prime time. Concerns about both the safety and cost-effectiveness of DAA treatments will be addressed over the next few days, as researchers share the knowledge they have begun to gain about how these drugs work in the real world.

Also on the agenda for the week is a discussion of several novel therapies for hepatitis B (HBV) that are currently under development. A widely anticipated session scheduled for tomorrow looks at the possibility of curing HBV infection by targeting covalently closed circular DNA (cccDNA). The possibility of eliminating cccDNA is very exciting to physicians who have been searching for a way to attack not just replicating virus but the viral reservoir lurking inside infected cells. The inability to target such cccDNA has long been one of the obstacles blocking the search for an HBV cure, but it looks as though it’s an obstacle that may soon be removed.

Liver research is progressing at an incredible pace, and individuals with liver disease increasingly have a lot to look forward to. From the growth of new treatments for liver infections and cancers to the impressive success rates of liver transplants, the lifespan of people with liver disease are on the rise. However, aging with liver disease does not come without cost, and one of the more anticipated papers to be presented at ILC2013 looks at the effects of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) on heart health. Results suggest that NAFLD is an independent risk factor for atherosclerotic events, reminding hepatologists that there are potentially many long-term sequelae that their patients have to look forward to.

Although those results can not necessarily be generalized to individuals with infectious liver disease, they do provide an important reminder that eliminating viral liver infections is only the first step. Changes in liver function may persist for years, and as treatments continue to improve, doctors will have more opportunities to see the ways such damage affects their patients’ lives. This may be a particular area of interest for doctors who are working with HIV-HCV coinfected patients and, who with the advent of increasingly effective antivirals, have ever more hope of keeping those patients healthy well into old age.

One of the most exciting facets of the ILC2013 program is how clearly it reminds us that the future of liver research isn’t just about reducing morbidity, it’s about facilitating health. Over the next five days, scientists will be learning about new therapeutic modalities that don’t just treat disease but also improve patients’ lives.