Nonalcoholic Liver Disease and Genetics: Is There a Link?

March 31, 2022

A lady laying on a couch

What exactly is the relationship between genetics and disease? Powered by Renown Health, the Healthy Nevada Project is one of the most visible genomic studies in the United States. They are recruiting participants here in northern Nevada to understand the relationship between genetics and nonalcoholic liver disease. Joseph Grzymski, Principal Investigator at the Healthy Nevada Project and Chief Scientific Officer at Renown Health, shares why this study is so important and who should take part.

Many people are aware that heavy drinking can lead to liver disease. Yet they are unaware that other types of liver disease are not caused by alcohol consumption. These types of liver disease are more difficult to diagnose but are equally dangerous.

What is NASH?

A build-up of fat causes nonalcoholic Fatty Liver Disease (NAFLD) in the liver. The most dangerous form is called Nonalcoholic Steatohepatitis (NASH). It causes inflammation and damages liver cells, leading to fibrosis, scarring of the liver, and decreased liver function. If NASH goes untreated, irreversible liver damage can occur, leading to cirrhosis, cancer, or liver failure. These conditions can be fatal.

What’s most concerning about NASH is that the symptoms don’t typically cause pain and aren’t noticeable. The good news is that a new local study is raising awareness about this disease by recruiting at-risk people for NASH.

Am I at risk for developing NASH?

The following factors put you at risk:
  • Obesity
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Metabolic syndrome
  • High blood lipids, such as cholesterol and triglycerides

Does having a family member with nonalcoholic liver disease increase my risk?

We do not know a lot about inheriting NASH, although a lot risk factors run in families. One goal of this study is to better understand the genetic component of NASH. There are certainly other risks too, such as environmental and behavioral risk factors. However, we don’t yet have a good grasp on how these impact NASH risk.

How is NASH diagnosed?

Diagnosis is traditionally done with either a liver ultrasound or biopsy. However, both procedures are expensive and the invasive biopsy has risks. Therefore doctors often use risk factors or less invasive blood tests for diagnosis. This NASH study will include a new blood test called the enhanced liver function (ELF) test. Doctors and researchers have data suggesting that the ELF test is a better diagnostic test for NASH risk. Conducting this cutting-edge test with study participants allows them to share results with their doctors to ensure the best care.

What can I do to reduce my NASH risk?

Limiting exposure to the risk factors of NASH often lowers risk. Eating a healthy diet, maintaining a recommended weight and exercising regularly can proactively lower your risk.

Is NASH curable?

Currently there are no approved treatments or therapies for NASH. That’s why it’s important to participate in this study and help us find a cure.

How will this study help?

We want to better understand why some people develop NASH while others do not. To do this, we have to compare data from lots of people. Furthermore, we hope this study will help reveal the cause NASH. From there, we can develop effective treatments.

What are the benefits of participating?

  • Contributing to important research helping scientists understand the causes of NASH and develop life-saving treatments
  • Learn more about you risk for developing NASH
  • Benefits of participating in the Healthy Nevada Project, including valuable ancestry and health insights
  • Many participants will also receive an enhanced liver function test (ELF) which can be useful in further assessing risk for developing NASH.
  • Participation is free

Who’s eligible to participate?

Do you live in northern Nevada with a NASH diagnosis or have a family member who has NASH? If so, we encourage you to to participate. If you have one or more of the following risk factors: obesity, type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome and dyslipidemia, you may also be a good candidate for the study. If your doctor has found elevated liver enzymes (or elevated liver function), we encourage you to participate.