Alcohol increases the proliferation of the hepatitis C virus (HCV) in human liver cells and, by so doing, may contribute to the rapid development of the infection, according to a report in the journal Hepatology.
A team of NIH-supported researchers led by Dr. Wen-Zhe Ho, director of retroviral research at The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, found that alcohol increases the activity of a protein called nuclear factor kappa B, and thereby causes the hepatitis C virus to replicate, or produce multiple copies of itself.
The researchers also found that alcohol interferes with the antiviral activity of interferon-alpha, a key therapy used for patients infected with hepatitis C.
Clinicians have long observed a high incidence of HCV infection in heavy drinkers, including those without other risk factors. The virus is also more likely to persist in heavy drinkers and to lead to such complications as cirrhosis and liver cancer.
"It was already known that habitual alcohol drinkers have higher blood levels of hepatitis C virus, compared to infrequent drinkers, even when both are infected with the virus," said Ho. "Our study provides a biological mechanism to support clinical observations."
A third finding that may eventually aid in treatment was that naltrexone, a drug used to help patients with alcoholism avoid relapse, may also block the effects of alcohol in promoting hepatitis C infection.
"These findings are immediately useful to clinicians for counseling HCV-positive patients about alcohol use," said Dr. Ting-Kai Li, Director, National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA).
Other sources: Children's Hospital of Philsadlphia