A new treatment to stop liver disease and cancer has been developed by British scientists.

They identified a key cell process that could cause damage to bile ducts and explain some liver conditions.

Triggering the process harms vital cells in bile ducts, while blocking the process reverses liver damage in mice.

The findings by scientists at The University of Edinburgh could help develop new treatments for bile duct diseases, which are linked to increased risk of cancers and liver failure.

Liver disease is the fifth ‘big killer’ after heart, cancer, stroke and respiratory disease killing 16,087 Britons and rates have doubled since 1991.

Each year around 5,700 Britons are diagnosed with liver cancer and 5,000 die of it.

How the disease is caused in bile ducts has remained unclear.

Damage to the ducts - small channels running through the liver that help the body dispose of waste - can result in tissue scarring and liver failure.

So the researchers examined liver tissue donated by patients with chronic bile duct disease and found evidence of a cell process known as senescence, which was not seen in healthy people.

Senescence - when aged cells no longer undergo natural division - has an important role in the normal function of the body.

However, the research shows senescence also contributes to disease, preventing repair of damaged bile ducts caused by wear and tear, leading to liver failure.

Tests in mice found that inducing senescence in bile duct cells - mimicking the process seen in human bile duct disease - led to liver scarring and damage of liver function.

Blocking chemical messages sent out by cells during senescence restored liver function in mice, pointing towards new treatment targets.

The study funded by the Medical Research Council was published in the journal Nature Communications.

Professor Stuart Forbes, Director of the MRC Centre for Regenerative Medicine at the University of Edinburgh, said: "Bile duct disease has been poorly understood and this has severely hampered the development of effective treatment.

"This work takes meaningful steps towards understanding this debilitating disease, identifying a potential target for future therapies."