Genetics and Alcoholic Liver Disease

Child and Grandparent
Liver Disease Can Be Genetic. Sally Anscombe / Getty Images

Research shows that genetic factors may determine those at increased risk of developing liver disease when certain genes trigger a strong immune reaction in response to alcohol which damages the liver.

Christopher P. Day, M.D., University of Newcastle upon Tyne (United Kingdom), presented his findings at the American Association for the Study of Liver Diseases (AASLD) 2000 Annual Meeting in Dallas.

His studies may indicate why some heavy drinkers develop liver problems, while others do not.

One in five heavy drinkers develop liver damage, and Day believes his research will help identify people at high risk of developing alcohol liver disease and develop a treatment for those at risk.

Some People Are More at Risk

"Our study shows that individuals with genes favoring a strong immune response are those at most risk of alcoholic liver disease," Dr. Day told the AASLD in Dallas. "The mechanisms of alcoholic liver disease may involve the immune system attacking 'self' proteins altered ‚Äčto 'foreign' antigens (neoantigens) by reaction with alcohol metabolites."

In simple terms, that means drinking alcohol causes a reaction in some people in which their body begins attacking itself, damaging the liver. This may explain why alcoholic cirrhosis usually develops after more than a decade of heavy drinking, but much sooner in some drinkers.

Strong Immune Response a Factor

"Our study shows that individuals with genes favoring a strong immune response are those most at risk of alcohol liver disease," said Day.

Dr. Day's research identified an antibody response to alcohol consumption which is linked to polymorphisms - genetic variants found in at least one percent of the population.

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

Liver Damage Amplified

"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," David Adams, professor of hepatology at the University of Birmingham, told BBC News.

Loss of liver function affects the body in many ways. One of the well-known symptoms of cirrhosis is jaundice, which causes a yellowing of the skin and eyes. Generally by the time jaundice develops, the liver has been severely damaged.