The latest critique from ISFAR looks at recent research into the link between alcohol consumption and genetic factors

The latest critique from ISFAR looks at recent research into the link between alcohol consumption and genetic factors

Despite extensive research over the past few decades, our knowledge about the genes that underlie most chronic diseases remains incomplete.

For example, even for alcohol-related diseases, it is not possible at present to determine how an individual person will respond over a lifetime to varying amounts of alcohol intake: Not all heavy drinkers develop cirrhosis; not all moderate drinkers lower their risk of cardiovascular disease. While the underlying genetic pattern of a person undoubtedly plays a role in his/her health outcomes, environmental factors, including alcohol consumption, may modify the effects of genes.

The modification of the effects of genes by environmental factors, such as alcohol intake, can be referred to as 'epigenetics'.

A new paper on epigenetics, by a leading scientist who has worked at the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) for many years, provides important new insight into mechanisms by which alcohol intake, especially heavy consumption, may modify the activity of genes affecting health. Dr. Zakhari describes specific effects that heavy alcohol intake can have on the activities of enzymes involved in epigenetic modifications.

In some cases, alcohol enhances genetically-determined effects; in others, it suppresses such activity. As stated by the author: “Metabolites, including those generated during ethanol metabolism, can impact disease states by binding to transcription factors and/or modifying chromatin structure, thereby altering gene expression patterns”.

ISFAR forum members consider this to be a very well-thought-out and well-done presentation of important new data.

They agree with the author that these observations could help researchers to design model medications to treat or at least ameliorate alcohol-related organ damage, such as cirrhosis of the liver and alcohol-related cancers.

While reviewers consider that these observations are important in our understanding of how alcohol affects health, they point out that they must be tested in further research, especially epidemiologic studies, to evaluate the extent that such interations between alcohol and genes actually affect health outcomes. Key problems that limit our ability to determine causality of disease from epidemiologic studies include not knowing the underlying genetic susceptibility of individual subjects and, as pointed out in the present paper, not accounting for environmental factors that may modify such genetic effects. 

To read the full critique, click here.

These critiques are published with the permission of The ISFAR.