A study presented at the Radiological Society of North America conference has found signs of liver injury in patients, months after going through a COVID-19 infection. The study adds to evidence of SARS-CoV-2 infecting and damaging the organ.
The retrospective study, which has not yet been peer-reviewed, looked at patient data going back three years, using ultrasound shear wave elastography scans that took place at Massachusetts General Hospital between 2019 and 2022. This particular scan uses sound waves to measure the stiffness of tissue, allowing them to assess a patient's liver stiffness. Liver stiffness is a marker of liver damage such as fibrosis (build-up of scar tissue) and inflammation.
The team compared patients who had tested positive for COVID-19 at least 12 weeks prior to their scan to control groups of people who had tested only tested negative for COVID-19 and patients who underwent their scans prior to the pandemic. Controlling for factors such as age and sex, the team found that patients in the positive COVID-19 group had statistically significant higher levels of liver stiffness than those who had only tested negative for the disease.
People who had had COVID-19 as confirmed by a test had a median liver stiffness of 7.68 kilopascals (kPa) compared with the pandemic control group of 5.99 kPa. Unexpectedly, patients in the pre-pandemic control group had a higher median stiffness than the pandemic control, at 7.01 kPa. While the reason for this is not yet fully understood, the team suspect that it may be due to a change in patterns of referrals for ultrasound shear wave elastography scans during the pandemic.
“We don’t yet know if elevated liver stiffness observed after COVID-19 infection will lead to adverse patient outcomes,” study co-author Dr Firouzeh Heidari said in a press release. The team has since moved on to attempting to find out.
“We are currently investigating whether the severity of acute COVID-related symptoms is predictive of long-term liver injury severity," Heidari said.
"We hope to enrich our existing database with additional patient data and a broader scope of co-variates to better understand the post-acute effects of COVID-19 within the liver.”
The findings were presented at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America.