Alcoholic liver disease: new insights in pathogenesis lead to new treatments

J Hepatol. 2000;32(1 Suppl):113-28. doi: 10.1016/s0168-8278(00)80420-1.


Much progress has been made in the understanding of the pathogenesis of alcoholic liver disease, resulting in improvement of prevention and therapy, with promising prospects for even more effective treatments. The most successful approaches that one can expect to evolve are those that deal with the fundamental cellular disturbances resulting from excessive alcohol consumption. Two pathologic concepts are emerging as particularly useful therapeutically. Whereas it continues to be important to replenish nutritional deficiencies, when present, it is crucial to recognize that because of the alcohol-induced disease process, some of the nutritional requirements change. This is exemplified by methionine, which normally is one of the essential amino acids for humans, but needs to be activated to S-adenosylmethionine (SAMe), a process impaired by the disease. Thus, SAMe rather than methionine is the compound that must be supplemented in the presence of significant liver disease. Indeed, SAMe was found to attenuate mitochondrial lesions in baboons, replenish glutathione, and significantly reduce mortality in patients with Child A or B cirrhosis. Similarly, polyenylphosphatidylcholine (PPC) corrects the ethanol-induced hepatic phospholipid depletion as well as the decreased phosphatidylethanolamine methyltransferase activity and opposes oxidative stress. It also deactivates hepatic stellate cells, whereas its dilinoleoyl species (DLPC) increases collagenase activity, resulting in prevention of ethanol-induced septal fibrosis and cirrhosis in the baboon. Clinical trials with PPC are ongoing in patients with alcoholic liver disease. Furthermore, enzymes useful for detoxification, such as CYP2E1, when excessively induced, become harmful and should be downregulated. PPC is one of the substances with anti-CYP2E1 properties that is now emerging. Another important aspect is the association of alcoholic liver disease with hepatitis C: a quarter of all patients with alcoholic liver disease also have markers of HCV infection, with an even higher incidence in some urban areas but, at present, no specific therapy is available since interferon is contraindicated in that population. However, in addition to antiviral medications, agents that oppose oxidative stress and fibrosis should also be tested for hepatitis C treatment since these two processes contribute much to the pathology and mortality associated with the virus. In addition to antioxidants (such as PPC, silymarin, alpha-tocopherol and selenium), anti-inflammatory medications (corticosteroids, colchicine, anticytokines) are also being tested as antifibrotics. Transplantation is now accepted treatment in alcoholics who have brought their alcoholism under control and who benefit from adequate social support but organ availability is still the major limiting factor and should be expanded more aggressively. Finally, abstinence from excessive drinking is always indicated; it is difficult to achieve but agents that oppose alcohol craving are becoming available and they should be used more extensively.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Anti-Inflammatory Agents / therapeutic use
  • Cytochrome P-450 CYP2E1 Inhibitors
  • Cytokines / physiology
  • Hepatitis C / complications
  • Humans
  • Liver Diseases, Alcoholic / drug therapy
  • Liver Diseases, Alcoholic / metabolism*
  • Liver Diseases, Alcoholic / therapy*
  • Liver Transplantation
  • Nutritional Physiological Phenomena


  • Anti-Inflammatory Agents
  • Cytochrome P-450 CYP2E1 Inhibitors
  • Cytokines