New medical advance gives recovering alcoholics with liver damage new hope

If you’ve been addicted to alcohol and managed to quit before your liver was badly damaged, you’re one of the lucky ones. Many alcoholics end up with liver cirrhosis and chronic liver disease – and that’s the final wake-up call that makes them quite. Sadly, they may have quit too late, as liver disease can be fatal; over 100,000 US residents die every year from liver disease. Liver cirrhosis is often associated with heavy drinking and contributes to the toll.

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism reports that 45.8% of liver disease deaths are alcohol related, and 48% of liver cirrhosis deaths are caused by alcohol. Among liver transplant patients, 1 in three needed the potentially life-saving surgery as a result of a history of alcohol abuse. The affected age-group is relatively young. Most alcohol-related liver disease deaths occur among people aged from just 25 years old to 44 years old.

New virus heals liver

But now scientists have come up with a new virus that instead of making people sick, makes them well. It targets damaged liver cells and makes the healthy again. Scientists say that the new advance to add years to patients’ lives and may even avert the need for complicated, and often unsuccessful, liver transplants.

Lead researcher, Dr. Holger Willenbring says that the altered cells are not only accepted by the body as functional parts of the organ, but that they divide and increase, resulting in patches of new, healthy liver tissue.

Liver fibrosis process reversed

Liver fibrosis is a process in which the liver becomes progressively scarred until it can’t function any longer. It affects special liver cells called hepatocytes, and the body can’t regenerate new hepatocytes quickly enough, so liver function is progressively impaired. The damage is caused by heavy alcohol use or by diseases such as hepatitis C. It also occurs among people suffering from obesity who develop fatty liver disease.

At first, the liver tires to patch itself up in a manner closely resembling the way we would patch a punctured tire. But once the liver has been patched up too often, functioning is impaired. The organ works around the problem, but by the time 20% live function is left, patients usually die within just two years.

Liver fibrosis isn’t a rare condition, Dr. Willenbring says it is the final stage of many liver diseases. The new process, designed by Dr. Willenbring and colleagues at the Heidelberg University Hospital in Germany, converts the ‘patches’ into properly functioning liver cells. If this process is able to keep a patient’s liver function above the critical level, the two-year death sentence could be lifted.

How serious is the risk of alcohol-related liver disorders in heavy drinkers?

Not all heavy drinkers develop liver disorders, but they are a high-risk group. The reason why not everybody is affected is believed to be genetic. And this hypothesis is currently being tested in an Australian Study with US support.

Fatty liver disease, a condition that may lead to severe liver damage is one of the most common causes for alcohol induced liver disorders. Those who have been drinking more than 80 grams of alcohol per day over a period of five years have a 90 to 100% chance of having fatty liver disease. It’s insidious, since the only symptom is enlargement of the liver, but it is an important cause of alcohol related liver problems. Another cause of liver damage is alcoholic hepatitis in which alcohol directly damages liver tissue.

One more good reason to limit drinking or stop drinking

Although the new medical advance does offer the promise of a prolonged lifespan for those suffering from liver damage, their lives will nevertheless be shorter than they otherwise would have been.

Many heavy drinkers and alcoholics stop drinking before they reach the fatal turning-point, but for those who wait until real health problems develop, medical interventions are, at best, often just a means of extending life a little longer.

Asking people to love their livers may seem like a long shot, but the liver is an absolutely vital organ, and avoiding liver disease should be given as much importance as dealing with high blood pressure to combat heart disease.

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