Alcoholic liver disease affects nearly 2 million people each year and is the third-leading preventable cause of death in the United States. Right now, there is no cure, but an MU researcher was recently awarded a $1 million grant to begin searching for one.
Shivendra Shukla has put together a team from the MU School of Medicine to study the effects of alcohol on liver cells. Although Shukla’s goal is to eventually produce a drug that will prevent and treat liver damage from alcohol, the researcher’s first priority is identifying how alcohol damages the liver.
“Alcohol is the good, the bad and the ugly,” Shukla said. “We are looking more into the damaging effects it has.”
Shukla and his team are comparing the liver cells of rats that have been given alcohol to the liver cells of rats that have been fed a normal diet. Their findings suggest that rats exposed to alcohol have, among other changes, a smaller cell nucleus than those who have a normal diet.
Shukla thinks chronic damage to the liver is caused by changes in genes or proteins. The findings are significant because, according to the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, which is funding Shukla’s work, genetics play a large role in alcohol research.
Shukla is also investigating “signaling” within cells, which he described as a complex system of molecular connections that relay messages from outside the cell into the nucleus. While scientists know that cells are affected by alcohol, they are unsure exactly which signaling components are disturbed, Shukla said.
Shukla said he is focusing on the signaling of cells because if alcohol’s effect on signaling can be determined, the research could be applied to alcohol-related problems, including cardiovascular, neurological and immune diseases.
“Signaling is really important because it affects the cell’s response,” Shukla said.
It could be a decade before the research leads to a monumental discovery, Shukla said, although, as a scientist, he is accustomed to waiting patiently for a breakthrough to come.
“Once you become a scientist, it is your whole life’s business,” Shukla said. “In science you answer one question and generate many more questions. This keeps you excited and heading forward.”