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Monday, 30 October, 2000, 00:18 GMT
Alcoholic liver disease linked to genes
man brinking beer
Genes may determine those at risk of liver disease
A group of UK doctors suggest that genetic factors may determine those at increased risk of developing liver disease from drinking alcohol.

Researchers at the University of Newcastle believe that certain genes trigger a strong immune reaction in response to alcohol which then damages the liver.

Dr Chris Day, who is leading the research, says the work suggests directions for the development of treatment and help identify people at high risk of developing the disease.

One in five heavy drinkers develop organ damage and teams in several UK centres are studying what makes this group particularly vulnerable.

Dr Day's team has identified an antibody response to alcohol consumption which is linked to polymorphisms - genetic variants found in at least 1% of the population.

The response was found in half of those with liver cirrhosis and was present in one third of those who did not have liver disease.

People who possess these polymorphisms appear to be susceptible to liver damage at lower levels of alcohol consumption.

Immune response

"Our study shows that individuals with genes favouring a strong immune response are those at most risk of alcoholic liver disease," Dr Day told the American Association for the Study of Liver Diseases annual meeting in Dallas.

David Adams, professor of hepatology at the University of Birmingham believes that the way forward is for UK centres to collaborate closely on their research.

This suggests directions for the development of treatment and should allow for the identification of individuals at high risk

Dr Chris Day, Newcastle University
"We should be able to designate one or two centres to concentrate on this work and other centres can provide them with DNA so we can look at greater numbers of people," Professor Adams told BBC News Online.

"This is very important work but there is still a long way to go to understand what stimulates the immune system to amplify the damage to the liver."

There are clearly a range of other factors, given that one third of apparently healthy people also have the same genetic polymorphisms.

Dr Alison Brind, consultant physician at the City General Hospital in Stoke is also heading research into genetic factors in alcohol-related liver disease.

"What we've recognised is that there are multiple factors that interact.They all may have a small part to play but in combination they will increase risk," she said.

Earlier research with twins has also indicated a genetic predisposition to problem drinking behaviour as well as to the resulting liver damage, Dr Brind said.

Eric Appleby, director of Alcohol Concern, said it is helpful to have a better understanding of liver disease and the people who may be more likely to develop it.

But he added: " You've got to be drinking at high levels to develop liver disease and we are concerned that people drink within sensible levels if they are not to be at risk of all sorts of health problems."

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06 Jul 00 | Health
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