Gene Variants May Signal Risk for Heavy Drinkers

Researchers in the UK analyzed the genomes of heavy drinkers and found that those who had liver disease had variants in two genes, a condition not shared by heavy drinkers who did not get liver disease.

People who drink too much alcohol are at risk of developing alcoholic hepatitis, a condition that can lead to cirrhosis and then to death within five years in 50% of patients.

A study presented at the International Liver Congress in Barcelona offers evidence that there are two genes for which can play a role in increasing the odds of heavy drinkers dying.

Stephen Atkinson, a clinical research fellow at Imperial College, London, UK and colleagues proposed that variants in the PNPLA3 gene and the SLC38A4 gene confer such risk.

They came up with the finding by comparing the genomes of two sets of alcohol-dependent subjects. One group of 860 people had severe alcoholic hepatitis. The other group of 1,191 people drank just as much but had no evidence of liver disease.

If the researchers are correct, that means “we may now be able to use genetic profiles to identify people who are at increased risk of developing severe alcohol hepatitis,” Atkinson said.

Europe has more heavy drinkers than any other region in the world, according to World Health Organization statistics cited by the European Association for the Study of the Liver (EASL).

Globally, EASL says, 493,000 people died from alcohol-related liver disease in 2010.