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Charles Lieber, pioneer in alcoholism research

Dr. Charles S. Lieber, who overturned conventional wisdom by demonstrating that alcohol is a toxin that can damage the liver and that alcoholism is a disease that can be treated, died March 1 at his home in Tenafly, N.J. He was 78 and had been battling stomach cancer.

Before his work in the 1970s, researchers had thought that alcohol itself was harmless and that cirrhosis of the liver occurred because most alcoholics suffered from malnutrition. Alcoholism was considered a moral defect.

Lieber showed otherwise and demonstrated that excessive drinking could change the metabolism in the liver to convert a number of normally harmless chemicals, including acetaminophen, into toxins.

“If you look at his contributions, we all owe Dr. Lieber an enormous debt of gratitude for helping to set into place the science that supports all the work around alcohol and alcoholism,” said Robert Lindsey, president and chief executive of the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence.

“Even today, the government standards for how much a normal person can drink are based on his research,” added Dr. Norman Pace, a longtime researcher in alcoholism. “The most important thing you can say about him is ‘The guy should have gotten a Nobel Prize.'”

When Lieber began his work in the 1960s, physicians generally assumed alcohol was a relatively harmless chemical, like sugar, and the liver damage associated with excessive drinking occurred because the drinkers had a poor diet.

In hospital experiments in New York, Lieber fed baboons the equivalent of a fifth of liquor daily for up to four years and reported they developed cirrhosis even though their diet was very healthful.

He subsequently demonstrated the existence of two enzyme systems in the liver affected by persistent drinking and demonstrated that women – unlike men – do not have one of the enzymes in the lining of their stomachs. Lieber also showed alcohol consumption promotes hepatitis and pioneered the therapeutic use of the supplement S-adenosylmethionine or SAMe, to prevent liver toxicity.

Lieber is survived by his second wife, Dr. Maria Leo-Lieber; three daughters, two sons and six grandchildren.

source: Los Angeles Times

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