Liver disease is the fastest rising cause of death in the UK, and by the time that symptoms appear the damage is usually too severe for treatment to have any impact.

As a result, it is known as ‘the silent killer,’ affecting more than one billion people worldwide.

Now an Oxford University spin-out company looks set to revolutionise the way liver disease is detected and treated with innovative software that allows doctors to ‘see’ and measure the disease at a much earlier stage and monitor how it responds to treatment.

Founded in 2012, Perspectum Diagnostics is combining its patented technology and the know-how of a group of doctors, scientists and engineers to tackle unmet needs in diagnostic medicine.

The initial focus is on the detection and accurate measurement of liver, gallbladder and pancreatic disease.

Rajarshi Banerjee and Stefan Neubauer, doctors specialising in internal medicine and cardiology, founded the company with Matthew Robson, an academic physicist at Oxford University.

The fourth founder is serial entrepreneur and medical imaging expert, Professor Sir Mike Brady, already a key figure in several university spin-outs in medical software.

The founders came up with the idea of using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to determine the composition of a person’s liver by measuring the amount of fat, iron and scar tissue (‘fibrosis’).

Currently, diagnosis of fibrosis in fatty liver and other conditions can only be achieved by undergoing a biopsy test, which is painful, costly and misses patchy disease.

Dr Banerjee explained: “A liver biopsy only looks at a tiny bit of liver through the eye of a needle, whereas our scans can look at the whole liver. For the first time, we can see and quantify patchy disease and measure improvements in the liver from treatment of disease.

“Since up to one-fifth of the adult population have abnormal livers (usually a little too much fat) and most of this is undiagnosed, there is a huge unmet clinical need, especially as these people are twice as likely to die of early heart disease.

“Doctors have traditionally used MRI to look at the anatomy of our internal organs. We use the same hardware but instead we analyse the properties of a specific organ, such as the signals from iron and water and ratio of fat to water.

“The first clinical trial of our technology demonstrated that these measurements were as accurate as liver biopsy in assessing disease, which generated considerable interest from the medical and drug development communities.

“And patients from the trial asked if we could get the MRI scans into mainstream use so they would not need to have liver biopsies in the future.”

Dr Banerjee says there are several potential treatments for liver disease but research has been hampered until now by the lack of accurate diagnostic tests.

He added: “Currently, how can you tell if your treatment has worked, without repeatedly biopsying your patient? Our new technology offers the first accurate, quantitative non-invasive method to detect early changes in the liver and can replace many liver biopsies.

“Most importantly, the scans are completely safe and take less than 20 minutes. This makes them practical to implement in normal NHS practice.”

Initial investment into the company was by the founders, Oxford University and the Oxford University Hospitals NHS Trust.

The first external funding round last October was oversubscribed, raising more than £500,000. Perspectum has also been awarded a prestigious £1.2m grant from the Technology Strategy Board enabling it to work in partnership with the Universities of Birmingham and Edinburgh, two of the largest liver centres in Europe, to develop the product, gain regulatory approvals for Europe and the United States and complete a multi-centre clinical trial.

Perspectum’s main clients will be healthcare organisations and researchers in liver disease from academia and the pharmaceutical industries.

“For hospitals, an MRI scan is substantially cheaper than a liver biopsy and allows serial assessment and more accurate measurements. Unsurprisingly, patients also prefer a scan to a needle-biopsy,” said Dr Banerjee.

The company, based at the Oxford Innovation Centre in Oxford, has grown rapidly to 11 staff and is expanding further.

Dr Banerjee cites “working with a great team of scientists on something I know can make a difference,” as being what he most enjoys about the business.

The team is focused on preparing for a formal launch of the LiverMultiScan product on May 9 and has strong interest from potential clients.

The objective is to have the product available for use on both sides of the Atlantic within a year.

Dr Banerjee said: “Our MRI discoveries may totally change the way we treat patients. We have a huge responsibility to provide a robust, usable tool that can be used by the millions of patients worldwide with undiagnosed liver diseases and by researchers to develop better treatments.” * This page is co-ordinated by Oxford Innovation