Fatty liver disease disproportionally affecting Latino youth; scientists unite to find the cause

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Cases of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease are rising among children in this country, with Latino kids being hit especially hard. At this point, those in medicine have a lot of unanswered questions about the disease. But researchers from several different health organizations and children’s hospitals have teamed up on a new study looking for answers. Here to discuss is Doctor Johanna DiStefano, head of TGen’s Metabolic and Fibrotic Disease Program and a lead investigator on the project.

What is fatty liver disease?

DiStefano defines the disease as chronic and progressive. Left untreated, it can also lead to more serious liver diseases, including cirrhosis.

“It’s associated with diabetes, but it’s also associated with lifestyle and genetics,” DiStefano said.

What can be done to treat children with this disease?

Current treatments include lifestyle changes and weight loss, which is good news, according to DiStefano. “3-5% weight loss [of total body weight] is enough to reduce the amount of fat in the liver,’ DiStefano said. “Just those simple changes can help to resolve the fat in the liver.”

Are there efforts to educate the community about this?

“Yes, but not enough,” DiStefano said. “Even at the level of primary care physician, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease is not a well-understood disease, and most docs aren’t even looking to diagnose this disease in children.”

Is there a way to determine which children are more at risk?

Not at this time, DiStefano said. But the researchers part of the research project hope to find one.

What are you hoping to learn from this project?

DiStefano said she hopes the researchers will be able to identify Latino kids with fatty liver.

“It’s a silent disease, as you mentioned, and if you’re not looking for it, you’re not going to find it. But, you know, this will help us to identify the disease, and it will be able to identify children who are at highest risk of progressing with the disease.”

Johanna DiStefano, Ph.D., TGen, Head of Diabetes and Fibrotic Disease Unit

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