Two types of factors can theoretically modulate alcohol metabolism toward increased acetaldehyde production. These factors are the following: (a) individual, genetically determined isoenzymes with distinct catalytic properties, and (b) modifications of enzyme activity induced by alcohol itself or liver damage. To investigate the respective roles of these factors in white individuals, we studied the alcohol dehydrogenase phenotype, together with liver alcohol dehydrogenase and aldehyde dehydrogenase activities, in 161 patients. Patients with alcoholic cirrhosis (n = 31) were compared with three types of controls: patients with nonalcoholic cirrhosis (n = 25) and excessive (n = 62) and moderate drinkers (n = 43) without liver disease. No association between alcohol dehydrogenase—3 phenotype and alcoholic cirrhosis was found. The prevalence of atypical alcohol dehydrogenase in the four groups was less than 1%. Patients with cirrhosis, regardless of its cause, had significantly lower alcohol dehydrogenase activity than the patients without cirrhosis (p<0.05 and p<0.01 vs. excessive and moderate drinkers, respectively). Among the noncirrhotic patients, alcohol dehydrogenase activity was significantly lower in the excessive drinkers than in the moderate drinkers (p<0.001). Aldehyde dehydrogenase activity was not different between cirrhosis-free excessive and moderate drinkers; in contrast, compared with these two groups, it was significantly lower in the two cirrhosis groups (p<0.01).
These results suggest that no phenotypic pattern of alcohol dehydrogenase—3 associated with alcoholic cirrhosis in white patients exists, that liver alcohol dehydrogenase activity falls as a consequence of both alcohol abuse and cirrhosis and that liver aldehyde dehydrogenase activity is unaffected by alcohol abuse and only falls after the onset of cirrhosis. (HEPATOLOGY 1992;15:1017-1022).