26 July 2021

Hepatitis B is an infectious disease that causes the liver to become inflamed and contributes to increasing rates of liver cancer in Australia and globally.

A point-of-care test that uses a single droplet of blood to measure liver damage is hoped to overcome barriers to treatment of hepatitis B, in research funded through the National Health and Medical Research Council.

The simple test, developed by the Burnet Institute and its spinoff company, Nanjing BioPoint Diagnostics, could help counter increasing rates of chronic hepatitis B and associated liver cancer worldwide, particularly in countries and communities where the disease is endemic, and diagnosis and treatment rates are low.

For those who have not been vaccinated, treatment for chronic hepatitis B is available, affordable and can reduce the risk of liver cancer but rates of treatment remain low.

(L-R) Mary Garcia, Huy Van, Fan Li and David Anderson

Burnet Institute and University of Melbourne researcher Dr Jessica Howell said a key reason is delayed diagnosis. 

Dr Howell, who is also a consultant gastroenterologist at St Vincent’s Hospital, received a $381, 948 NHMRC Ideas Grant to further validate the point-of-care test for liver inflammation, which is simple, affordable and can be performed anywhere with simple training using a single droplet of blood. 

'Oral tablets to treat hepatitis are safe, effective and affordable but we still have the issue of people not being started on treatment early enough to prevent the life-threatening complications of liver cirrhosis and liver cancer,' Dr Howell said.

'290 million people are living with hepatitis B worldwide. One per cent of the Australian population is affected, but it particularly affects populations coming to Australia from countries where the virus is endemic and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.

'Only 9-10 per cent of those eligible actually receive treatment because diagnosis rates are so low.

'To our knowledge, this is the first point-of-care test for liver inflammation and evaluation of liver disease, which is key in deciding whether someone with hepatitis B should start treatment.

'This novel point-of-care test is easy to use, low cost and might overcome some of the barriers to timely treatment.'

The project will also conduct mathematical modelling to assess the best approaches to treatment of hepatitis B to inform guidelines for treatment; the anticipated advantages of diagnosing and treating people early and the potential advantages of a “treat-all” approach to hepatitis B. The study team are also working with collaborators in countries with a high burden of hepatitis B including China and Ethiopia to validate the test.

Dr Howell said the combined project - The Rapid B Study – aimed to contribute to efforts to eliminate hepatitis B. 

'The Rapid B Study will use mathematical modelling to investigate the most cost-effective way to combine these novel tests with treatment to reduce liver cancer deaths.'