thumbnail Why do some heavy drinkers get liver cirrhosis and some don’t?

Newcastle University researchers are to determine the role of genetics in alcoholic liver disease which should lead to better diagnosis and treatment of the condition.

“We still don’t understand why only a proportion of moderate to heavy drinkers get liver cirrhosis,” said Professor Chris Day, liver expert at Newcastle University and within Newcastle Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust.

“Nothing so far has been able to explain the unpredictability of why some people get cirrhosis and others who drink equal amounts don’t,” he said.

In 2008, there were 6000 deaths from alcoholic liver disease in the UK and in 2007 188,000 hospital admissions. While the disease has been predominantly seen among men over 50 years of age, it is becoming more frequent worldwide among younger adults and young women.

It is the leading cause of alcohol-related death and contributes to 50% of the total burden of liver disease and to 15% of liver transplants.

The Newcastle research team will soon be collecting samples from 300 North East patients being treated at the Newcastle Hospitals Trust and Plummer Court Drug and Alcohol Addiction Unit and analysing their findings alongside international colleagues in Australia, USA, UK, Germany, Switzerland and France. Half the recruits will have cirrhosis and the other half, the control group, will have been heavy drinkers for 10 years but be free of liver disease. The £1.7 million international study has received funding from the US government.

“Apart from alcohol consumption, several contributory factors, including diet, lifestyle, mental health, viral infection and gender, influence the risk of developing cirrhosis. There is also evidence that genes influence the development and progression of this disease,” Professor Day said.

“We hope that by analysing the genes in a large international group comprising thousands of drinkers we can detect the genetic risks that predispose some drinkers to get alcoholic liver cirrhosis.”

Like other multi-factorial diseases, alcoholic liver cirrhosis is controlled by a number of genes, each of which makes a small overall contribution. Previous genetic searches have been inconclusive because the studies performed to date have generally been too small to yield definitive results.

“The lack of specific markers for diagnosis and effective treatment compound the burden of the disease. That is why this research is so important,” says Professor Day. “The results will help us identify and treat the people most at risk from drinking.”


published on: 29th March 2012

Key Facts:

  • Newcastle University is a Russell Group University
  • Ranked in the top 1% of universities in the world (QS World University Rankings 2014)
  • Ranked 16th in the UK for global research power (REF 2014)
  • Ranked 22nd in The Sunday Times 2015 Good University Guide
  • Amongst our peers Newcastle is:
    • Joint 6th in the UK for student satisfaction
    • Ranked 1st in the UK for Computing Science research impact, 3rd in the UK for Civil Engineering research power and 11th in the UK for Mathematical Sciences research (REF 2014)
    • Ranked 8th in the UK for Medical and Life Sciences research quality (REF 2014)
    • Ranked 3rd in the UK for English, and in the top 12 for Geography, Architecture and Planning, and Cultural and Media Studies research quality (REF 2014)
    • Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) top 20 strategic partner
  • 93.7% of our students are in a job or further training within six months of graduating
  • We have a world-class reputation for research excellence and are spearheading three major societal challenges that have a significant impact on global society. These themes are: Ageing, Sustainability, and Social Renewal
  • Newcastle University is the first UK university to establish a fully owned international branch campus for medicine at its NUMed Campus in Malaysia which opened in 2011
  • Our international students put Newcastle University in the world's top 50 (ISB 2013) of global universities.
  • Newcastle University Business School is one of 20 Triple Accredited Business Schools in the UK