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Breakthrough may lead to blood tests for heavy drinking

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- A research team led by a University of Iowa College of Medicine researcher has discovered a combination of laboratory tests that may help identify heavy drinkers.

If such a testing technique is developed, according to Dr. Arthur J. Hartz, professor of family medicine at the UI and principal investigator for the study, it would have far-reaching public policy implications. Among those implications are potential use in employment screening, use by insurance companies to determine high-risk people, and privacy issues.

Because of that, Hartz is quick to point out that a great deal more clinical testing needs to be done before the technique can be considered reliable across large populations.

"This is a step forward," Hartz says, "but it needs to be validated to prove its reliability."

The study is published in a recent issue of the Journal of Clinical Epidemiology. In it, Hartz and his colleagues conducted 40 separate blood tests on 426 heavy drinkers and 188 light drinkers. Both groups were divided into two segments, a training set and a validation set. As a result of their work, the researchers were able to determine 10 commonly performed laboratory tests which accurately discriminated between heavy drinkers and light drinkers. The battery of tests correctly identified 98 percent of the heavy drinkers and 95 percent of the light drinkers.

The 10 tests, the collective results of which the researchers found to be accurate predictors when taken in the aggregate, are: chloride, sodium, ratio of direct to total bilirubin level, blood urea nitrogen, high density lipoproteins, monocyte count, phosphorus, platelets, aspartate aminotransferase and mean corpuscular hemoglobin.

According to Hartz, there have been attempts to develop tests that can accurately detect excessive alcohol use but so far none has been accurate enough to gain widespread acceptability.