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Scientists have devised a new ''traffic light'' blood test which can reveal hidden liver damage caused by drinking.
The test, which can be delivered by GPs, could see thousands of patients diagnosed with liver problems before it is too late.
The Southampton Traffic Light test predicts a patient's likelihood of developing liver scarring.
If a patient gets a green score they are highly unlikely to die from liver disease over the next five years, amber means that they may have liver scarring and red means that they most likely do.
Liver disease develops without symptoms, and many people have no idea they have liver failure until it is too late.
Researchers say that this simple test can diagnose disease much earlier, enabling those at risk to change their behaviour which could save their lives.
They said that while it should not be a substitute for clinical judgment or other tests, it could help GPs determine the potential severity of liver disease in high risk patients such as heavy drinkers, those with type 2 diabetes or the obese.
The test, created by Dr Nick Sheron and his colleagues at University of Southampton and Southampton General Hospital, has been successfully piloted on 1,000 patients.
Publishing the results in the British Journal of General Practice, Dr Sheron, lead author and head of clinical hepatology at the University of Southampton, and consultant hepatologist at Southampton General Hospital, said:
''We are reliant on general practitioners detecting liver disease in the community so they can intervene to prevent serious liver problems developing, but so far we haven't been able to give them the tools they need to do this.
''We hope that this type of test for liver scarring may start to change this because the earlier we can detect liver disease, the more liver deaths we should be able to prevent.''
Study co-author and GP Dr Michael Moore added:
''In primary care, minor abnormalities of existing liver tests are quite common but we struggle to know how best to investigate these further and who warrants specialist intervention.
''The traffic light test has the advantage of highlighting those at highest risk who should be investigated further and those in whom the risk is much lower where a watchful approach is more appropriate.
''This is not a universal screening test but if targeted at those in whom there is a suspicion of liver disease should result in a more rational approach to further investigation.''
Professor Sir Ian Gilmore, chair of the Alcohol Health Alliance, added:
''One of the challenges of liver disease, which is rising dramatically in this country, is the silent nature of the condition until it is often too late to reverse the damage.
''However, minor changes in standard liver blood tests are so common that it is difficult for GPs to know when to refer for specialist advice.
''This large study from Dr Sheron and colleagues in Southampton may prove really useful for guiding the right patients towards specialist care in a timely way.''