Free screenings for study on fatty liver disease: Symptom-less, common in SA, can be deadly

Local doctor leading 5 new studies in effort to develop first FDA approved drug

By Courtney Friedman - VJ, Reporter, Misael Gomez - Photojournalist

SAN ANTONIO - It's a deadly condition that's extremely common in San Antonio, but because fatty liver disease produces no symptoms, it often goes undiagnosed.

There are also no FDA approved drugs available to treat it.

It's such a big problem, a local doctor came out of retirement to help solve it.

"It's going to be the number one cause of liver transplantation in the United States surpassing Hepatitis C next year," said Metabolism and Endocrinology specialist, Dr. Sherwyn Swartz. 

Dr. Swartz said people who are diabetic or even pre-diabetic are at risk of having a fatty liver.

"That's really prevalent in South Texas, San Antonio specifically, among Latinos. In San Antonio we have people who have the genetic trait. They don't exercise enough but they eat fatty foods," he said. 

That causes fat to build throughout the liver.

"So you have a fatty liver, gets expanded, eventually it gets fibrotic or scarred, it gets smaller and smaller. If it gets small enough you eventually get liver failure," Dr. Swartz said.

The first problem is, there are no symptoms. So unless you get scanned, you may never know you have it. 

You have to be proactive like Gloria Gomez, who has a family history of diabetes and gall bladder issues.

"My doctor told me, probably you have problems with your liver," she said as she sat in Dr. Swartz's office. 

Thankfully, her scan showed a healthy liver but Dr. Swartz said that's rare in San Antonio. 

He's used to seeing scans showing liver fat and scarring that top the charts.

Since April, Dr. Swartz and his technician Jenevieve Villarreal have screened about 300 San Antonio patients, and the numbers are unnerving. 

"if you're pre-diabetic or diabetic we're finding 70 percent have significant amount of fat in the liver already," Dr. Swartz said. 

Now, to the second problem: There are 48 drugs in development right now to treat the disease but none are FDA approved yet. 

That's why Dr. Swartz came out of retirement. He saw the problem still looming, but believes a life-saving drug is around the corner. 

He's now the senior researcher leading five studies, the first of which starts this week.

However, for those studies to be successful, he need patients to get tested, to see if they qualify.

"People will go in these studies and have a chance to get better. We're scanning people for free in San Antonio. We'll take as many people as they want," he said.

Swartz showed the test is almost identical to an ultrasound. It only takes a few minutes and patients can barely feel it. 

When asked how many patients Swartz is able to take for the clinical studies, he said, "Unlimited. We're trying to scan 2,000 patients in the next couple years."

Not only are the screenings free, but they'll also provide transportation to and from the appointment.
  
You'll get a quick scan and if you qualify, you'll be able to take part in the studies, which include different treatment options. 

Anyone interested can call 210-880-2279.  

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