Newcastle: Scientists have discovered a drug that could prevent liver disease, even in alcoholics.
Tests on the drug, Sulphasalazine, which is currently used to treat inflammatory bowel disease, found that it also prevented scarring of the liver and even reversed liver damage.
Professor Christopher Day, a liver specialist from Newcastle University in Britain who led the research, said Sulphasalazine could provide an alternative to liver transplants.
“This drug is not a finite resource. You are not stealing it from someone else, which is always a worry in public opinion,” said Professor Day said. “People are dying on the transplant list.”
Until now, cirrhosis of the liver, usually caused by alcohol abuse, is considered incurable and the only option for patients in the final stages of liver disease is a liver transplant.
Many patients die waiting for a transplant and there is a lack of desire to give organs to those who are ill through self abuse.
The researchers have tested the drug on animals and human trials are expected to begin in Britain next year.
The drug will initially be given to heavy drinkers who have given up alcohol too late for their liver to recover naturally.
If this proves successful, the medicine will also be prescribed to alcoholics who continue to drink but show a determination to fight their addiction by reducing intake.
Sulphasalazine may also relieve the ethical dilemma of giving donated livers to people whose illness was self-inflicted through excessive consumption of alcohol or poor diet and obesity.
Professor Jones said 10 to 15 per cent of people on the waiting list for a liver transplant were heavy drinkers.
“It’s a very tough decision for the doctors, if, for example they are faced with a 45-year-old man with a young family who’s a heavy drinker. If you say no to the transplant, they will die.
“It would be revolutionary if this drug could reverse the liver damage so you wouldn’t need to do a transplant or, better yet, prevent the damage in the first place.”