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IU scientist will use $1.15M grant to research biomarkers for heavy drinking


An Indiana University researcher has received a $1.15 million Department of Defense grant to investigate whether a simple blood test could be used to determine whether a person has recently been drinking heavily.

Suthat Liangpunsakul, M.D., associate professor of medicine and of biochemistry and molecular biology at the IU School of Medicine, said such a test is needed in instances when alcohol consumption is relevant to current health problems, including when a patient is being considered for a liver transplant, which requires alcohol abstinence.

“We know that the amount of alcohol consumed is almost always under-reported in patients’ conversations with their physician,” said Dr. Liangpunsakul, an investigator and physician at the Richard L. Roudebush VA Medical Center. 

The test would measure levels of certain phospholipids, molecules that function as components of cell membranes. In research with mice published in Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research and in a small preliminary test of human patients, Dr. Liangpunsakul found elevated levels of phospholipids following excessive alcohol consumption — the equivalent of four drinks per day for men, or three for women.

Dr. Liangpunsakul noted that within six weeks after alcohol consumption ends, the levels of phospholipids in the blood will drop significantly.

In the three-year study, the researchers will ask 250 patients how much alcohol has been consumed within the past month, using a survey that has been shown in other research as providing valid results. The period of a month was selected because it’s relevant to clinical practice, Dr. Liangpunsakul said. Moreover, memory generally is considered much less reliable as the questions go back further in time, he said.

The survey results will be compared with the patients’ phospholipid levels in blood tests to determine whether the levels can serve as biomarkers for excessive alcohol consumption.

Co-investigators for the study are Sean J. O’Connor, M.D., professor of psychiatry and of neurobiology, and Yan Xu, Ph.D., Hulman-George Family Professor of Gynecologic Cancer and professor of biochemistry and molecular biology.

The grant is part of the Department of Defense Investigator-Initiated Research Award program.