Autofluorescence emission of liver tissue depends on the presence of endogenous biomolecules able to fluoresce under suitable light excitation. Overall autofluorescence emission contains much information of diagnostic value because it is the sum of individual autofluorescence contributions from fluorophores involved in metabolism, for example, NAD(P)H, flavins, lipofuscins, retinoids, porphyrins, bilirubin and lipids, or in structural architecture, for example, fibrous proteins, in close relationship with normal, altered or diseased conditions of the liver. Since the 1950s, hepatocytes and liver have been historical models to study NAD(P)H and flavins as in situ, real-time autofluorescence biomarkers of energy metabolism and redox state. Later investigations designed to monitor organ responses to ischaemia/reperfusion were able to predict the risk of dysfunction in surgery and transplantation or support the development of procedures to ameliorate the liver outcome. Subsequently, fluorescent fatty acids, lipofuscin-like lipopigments and collagen were characterized as optical biomarkers of liver steatosis, oxidative stress damage, fibrosis and disease progression. Currently, serum AF is being investigated to improve non-invasive optical diagnosis of liver disease. Validation of endogenous fluorophores and in situ discrimination of cancerous from non-cancerous tissue belong to the few studies on liver in human subjects. These reports along with other optical techniques and the huge work performed on animal models suggest many optically based applications in hepatology. Optical diagnosis is currently offering beneficial outcomes in clinical fields ranging from the respiratory and gastrointestinal tracts, to dermatology and ophthalmology. Accordingly, this review aims to promote an effective bench to bedside transfer in hepatology.
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