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New technique to probe tissue flexibility offers improved diagnosis and treatment

Liver disease kills over 130 000 people in Europe every year, driven by obesity, hepatitis and alcohol consumption. The EU-funded FORCE project developed a cutting-edge diagnostic tool to aid early detection of liver disease. The technique, which quantifies the elasticity of soft tissue, can also be used to monitor tumours, improving outcomes for patients undergoing cancer treatment.

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Disease and chronic inflammation of the liver can lead to the development of scar tissue, known as fibrosis, which eventually leads to cirrhosis, the loss of liver function.

The stiffness of the organ therefore offers important clues about the presence and severity of liver disease. To measure this, a team of researchers led by Ralph Sinkus from King’s College London in the United Kingdom have developed a technique called Magnetic Resonance Elastography (MRE), which generates detailed maps of tissue biomechanics.

The new technology helps assess liver damage non-invasively, paving the way for early diagnosis and effective treatment. “Changes in biomechanics are intrinsically linked to pathological alterations,” explains Sinkus. “With this technique, you can stage liver fibrosis very precisely. It’s a crucial development considering the global burden of liver disease.”

The project work, including the development of novel hardware and software, was carried out in collaboration with 19 partner institutions across the world, including labs in Australia, France, Germany and the United States.

Promising cancer outcomes

Beyond liver fibrosis, the team has also seen promising results in cancer diagnostics – notably with breast cancer – and recent studies have shown that biomechanics can also gauge the success of chemotherapy.

In breast cancer patients, MRE helped determine if the cancer had responded to therapy by observing the changes in tissue mechanics before and between each chemotherapy cycle.

“With further trials we could potentially see this technology spare unnecessary treatment cycles and aid in deciding the right direction of treatment, enhancing patient care and outcomes,” says Sinkus.

From bench to bedside

The development and success of the FORCE project was not without challenges. The MRE system’s creation required intricate engineering and two years of trial and error.

“The challenge was generating precise strong mechanical vibrations in an efficient and patient-friendly way, without interfering with the MRI,” adds Sinkus. Complying with medical device safety regulations was another hurdle, which involved setting up several clinical trials during the COVID pandemic.

The group’s groundbreaking technology soon caught the attention of Siemens Healthineers, a world leader in MRI systems, resulting in its translation into a market-ready product.

This achievement marked a significant milestone in bridging the gap between laboratory innovation and tangible clinical applications. “There’s a huge difference between a system working in our lab and seeing it working in real life,” says Sinkus.

The MRE system is significantly more cost-effective than previous commercial solutions, which will help ensure widespread adoption by medical facilities around the world.

Sinkus credits the Horizon programme for making the innovation possible. “European Commission funding for long-term, high-risk research is invaluable and the only way to bring things forward,” he notes. “It allowed us to collaborate internationally and validate our technology’s real-world effectiveness."

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Project details

Project acronym
Project number
Project coordinator: United Kingdom
Project participants:
United Kingdom
United States
Total cost
€ 7 418 116
EU Contribution
€ 5 812 631
Project duration

See also

More information about project Force

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