A Four Marker Digital PCR Toolkit for Detecting Heavy Alcohol Consumption and the Effectiveness of Its Treatment

J Insur Med. 2019;48(1):90-102. doi: 10.17849/insm-48-1-1-1.1. Epub 2019 Oct 14.


Background.-Heavy alcohol consumption (HAC) is a shared concern of the forensic, medical and insurance underwriting communities. Unfortunately, there is a relative lack of clinically employable tools for detecting HAC and monitoring treatment response. Building on the results of 3 genome wide methylation studies, we have previously shown in a small group of samples that methylation sensitive digital PCR assays (MSdPCR) have the potential to accurately classify individuals with respect to HAC in a small set of individuals. Objective.-We now expand on those earlier findings using data and biomaterials from 143 participants with current HAC and 200 abstinent controls. Results.-We show that a set of 4 digital PCR assays that have a receiver operating characteristic (ROC) area under the curve (AUC) of 0.96 for detecting those with HAC. After a mean of 21 days of inpatient enforced abstinence, methylation status at one of these markers, cg04987734, began to revert to baseline values. Re-examination of methylation data from our smaller 2014 study with respect to this locus demonstrated a similarly significant reversion pattern at cg04987734 in association with treatment enforced abstinence. Conclusions.-We conclude that clinically implementable dPCR tools can sensitively detect the presence of HAC and that they show promise for monitoring alcohol treatment results. These dPCR tools could be useful to clinicians and researchers in monitoring those enrolled in substance use disorder treatment, employee wellness programs and insurance underwriting.

Keywords: AHRR; DNA methylation; Smoking; aryl hydrocarbon receptor repressor; cg05575921; digital PCR.; epigenetics.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Alcohol Drinking / epidemiology
  • Alcohol Drinking / genetics*
  • Alcohol Drinking / therapy
  • Area Under Curve
  • Biomarkers / blood
  • Case-Control Studies
  • DNA Methylation / genetics*
  • Female
  • Genetic Loci*
  • Humans
  • Iowa / epidemiology
  • Linear Models
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Polymerase Chain Reaction / methods*
  • ROC Curve
  • Treatment Outcome


  • Biomarkers