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To perform or not to perform liver biopsy: an alternative view
  1. R W Chapman
  1. Department of Hepatology/Gastroenterology, John Radcliffe Hospital, Headington, Oxford OX3 9DU, UK; roger.chapman{at}

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I would like to thank Joy and Scott for their comments in their letter in response to my review (Gut 2002;51:9–10).1 I entirely agree with their view that ultrasound is highly specific and sensitive for the diagnosis of fatty liver. However, I do not feel that the presence or absence of fatty liver is the issue here. It is established that approximately 30% of patients with fatty liver who have significant fibrosis will go on to develop chronic liver disease and cirrhosis, with all its complications, including hepatoma.2 The purpose of histological sampling is not to confirm the presence of fatty liver but to see whether fibrosis and other abnormalities are present, putting the patient at risk of developing chronic liver disease.

This issue was addressed in a recent article by Saadeh and colleagues3 who compared patients with non-alcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH) and those with steatosis (non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD)) alone. The authors evaluated the role of various radiological modalities, including ultrasound, computed tomography, and magnetic resonance imaging, in the role of distinguishing between NASH and the less aggressive forms of NAFLD. Their conclusion was that none of the radiological modalities detected the presence of hepatocyte ballooning, Mallory’s hyaline, or fibrosis, which are the important features in the diagnosis of NASH. The study showed that ultrasound had high sensitivity and specificity for the diagnosis of severe steatosis but it confirmed that ultrasound had no predictive value in the diagnosis of fibrosis or cirrhosis.

On the basis of this article together with earlier studies, I can find no basis for the conclusion reached by Joy and Scott that ultrasound is a reasonable alternative to liver biopsy for patients who have abnormal liver function tests with no diagnostic serology.