Researchers from the UCLA Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center received a $3.5 million, five-year grant from the National Institutes of Health to create a center dedicated to developing an effective and affordable blood-based, cancer-screening test to help detect liver cancer early.

The grant, which is led by scientist Xianghong Jasmine Zhou, Dr. Steven-Huy Han and Dr. Samuel French, helps fill an urgent demand for people who are in risk of developing liver cancer.

There are more than 42,000 new cases of liver cancer diagnosed each year, which has more than tripled since 1980. The American Cancer Society estimates that 30,000 people die from the disease every year and the death rate has continued to increase for the past 18 years.

Currently there are no recommended blood tests to screen for liver cancer, but for people who are at high risk, the standard practice is to use imaging, such as an ultrasound, every six months, which only catches the cancer once it already is formed.

The team is creating a test that would predict cancer at a very early stage — maybe even years before it would develop.

“It would be like driving with brighter headlights — you would see the problem way before it was upon you,” said Han, professor of medicine and surgery at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA.

The team’s diagnostic test is based on the DNA methylation patterns of circulating tumor DNA. Circulating tumor DNA carries cancer-specific genetic information, which enables a noninvasive way to diagnosis cancer.

Also known as a “liquid biopsy,” the screening blood test will be tested in people who have cirrhosis of the liver, which is one of the biggest risk factors for developing liver cancer. The team plans to follow thousands of liver cirrhosis patients for five years, to establish a longitudinal clinical cohort for the development and validation of the screening test.