NEW funding for an innovation centre will help develop treatments to tackle a silent killer that could affect one in four Scots.

Innovate UK, the national innovation agency, has awarded £1.7 million to Eagle Genomics and the Stratified Medicine Scotland Innovation Centre (SMS-IC) – at the Queen Elizabeth University Hospital in Glasgow – for a ground-breaking project that could help develop new tests and treatments for patients with non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD).

This is an accumulation of excess fat in the liver of people who drink little or no alcohol and affects a quarter of the world’s population.

NAFLD is the most common cause of chronic liver disease in developed countries – the third most common cause of premature death in the UK – and is there is a strong link to type II diabetes and obesity. There is no approved treatment for it.

The progressive form of NAFLD – non-alcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH) – usually precedes liver fibrosis, cancer and premature death.

Early recognition of the disease, monitoring progression and effective treatment in patients is urgently required to reduce deaths from end-stage liver disease.

An Eagle Genomics platform will be used as the foundation to develop SteatoSITE, a Data Commons, or unified data system, that allows sharing of genomic and clinical information from patients with NASH, making it more accessible for further research.

The Data Commons – a world first for NASH – will lead to a deeper understanding of which tests and treatments are most effective for individual patients.

As more data is added, it will evolve into a smarter, more comprehensive knowledge system that will assist important discoveries in chronic liver disease and increase the success of treatments.

The project will be led by SMS-IC’s industry partner, Eagle Genomics, an artificial intelligence-augmented knowledge discovery company, and will involve partners at Edinburgh and Glasgow universities, NHS Scotland and both cities’ Medical Research Council (MRC) Molecular Pathology Nodes.

It will bring together world-class clinical expertise, data and access to research samples. The project will involve genetic sequencing of 1000 liver biopsy samples from NHS Scotland’s biorepository network by Edinburgh Genomics, a global leader in DNA sequencing and genomics. This new data will be combined with information from imaging, clinical and electronic health records.

Diane Harbison, SMS-IC chief executive, said: “Scotland is a world leader in terms of the health data it has available, and this project is a great example of making most of this data in order to identify successful treatments and improve our ability to ensure each patient gets the right treatment. NAFLD is a massive health problem which affects large swathes of the population, not just in Scotland but globally, and there is a desperate need for potential treatments. Taking a stratified approach – ensuring treatments are targeted based on each individual patient’s genes – means they are more likely to be successful.”

Dr Jonathan Fallowfield, from the MRC Centre for Inflammation Research in Edinburgh, said: “Sharing information through this new data repository will be transformative for research efforts to better understand the disease. It will help to pinpoint patients at high risk of disease progression and will speed up the development of new therapies.”

Professor Dame Anna Dominiczak, head of the College of Medical, Veterinary and Life Sciences at Glasgow University, said: “The work of the SMS-IC, and indeed this latest collaborative project, exemplifies the university’s ethos of the ‘triple helix’ partnership between the NHS, university and industry.”

Abel Ureta-Vidal, CEO of Eagle Genomics added: “Our platform is already deployed in other areas of life sciences research and development ... This project will showcase its ability to accelerate innovation for pharmaceutical industry customers, to extend its use to other therapeutic areas of interest and play a key role in the digital reinvention of the life sciences research and development.”