Rethinking Healthcare

Taking the alcohol gene story with a rim of salt

Taking the alcohol gene story with a rim of salt

Posting in Healthcare

Connecting a condition to a genetic sequence is just the first step in a long process of discovery.

I would love to buy into the hype over the latest issue of Alcoholism, featuring a study from the University of North Carolina indicating that the expression of the gene CYP2E1 makes some people more susceptible to alcohol and, at the same time, more resistant to alcoholism.

(Picture from CBS News, about a woman who is alleged to have killed her lover with margaritas laced with antifreeze.)

It's not just an Ioannidis Reflex, given that this was a small study with a big conclusion. It's also a recognition that genetic science remains in its infancy, combined with a personal story.

Personal story first. (People like personal stories.)

I know anecdotes aren't science, but I have my own problem with alcohol, which I credit with a healthy liver. That is, the stuff gives me a headache. I often get the headache before the "high," and the pain just grows. I drink a ton of water to ward off hangovers, but even that does not always work. Once dinner is over I stop.

On the other hand I have known many alcoholics who seem happy from their first drink to their last and can go all night. I always assumed it was the link between pleasure and drinking that led to addiction. This study seems to indicate that it's the reverse, that people become alcoholics because they don't feel it.

Maybe.

The bigger concern involves genetic science.

Consider the enzyme being encoded by this gene. Trees genetically engineered to express it are able to remove pollutants from groundwater. Many important drug interactions are mediated by it, not just alcohol. Isolating the anti-alcohol effect of the gene may be difficult, and is bound to produce side-effects.

Then there is the fact that the engineering of genetic therapies remains in its infancy. Knowing that a gene is linked to a condition does not mean you can quickly engineer a solution to the condition. It doesn't work that way. And it takes years of testing to prove such a therapy in any case.

Since the Human Genome Project was completed in 2003, there has been a gold rush among researchers, linking various conditions to various genes, or gene sequences. It's fun, and it's valuable, but it's also just the first step in a long scientific process.

Thus, I'm taking this news with more than a grain of salt.

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Dana Blankenhorn

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Dana Blankenhorn has written for the Chicago Tribune, Advertising Age's "NetMarketing" supplement and founded the Interactive Age Daily for CMP Media. He holds degrees from Rice and Northwestern universities. He is based in Atlanta. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure