What’s causing an isolated GGT elevation in my patient with an abnormal alkaline phosphatase on her routine admission lab?

Although serum gamma-glutamyl transpeptidase or GGT is a very sensitive test for liver disease, especially of biliary origin, it’s by no means a very specific test. Besides the liver, GGT is found in the kidneys, pancreas, prostate, heart, brain, and seminal vesicles but not in bone (1-4).

Obesity, alcohol consumption and drugs are common causes of GGT elevation (2). As early as 1960s, elevated GGT was reported in such seemingly disparate conditions as diabetes mellitus, congestive heart failure, myocardial infarction, nephrotic syndrome and renal neoplasm (3). Nonalcoholic steatohepatitis, viral hepatitis, biliary obstruction, COPD, liver metastasis, drug-induced liver injury can all cause GGT elevation (1-4).

An isolated GGT does not necessarily indicate serious or progressive liver disease. That’s one reason it’s often not included in routine “liver panel” lab tests (1).

What to do when GGT is high but other liver panel tests such as ALT, AST, albumin, and bilirubin are normal? If your patient is at risk of acquired liver disease, then further workup may be necessary (eg, hepatitis B and C screening tests). Alcohol consumption should be queried. Don’t forget conditions associated with iron overload. If your patient is obese, diabetic or has elevated both lipids, an ultrasound of the liver to look for fatty liver should be considered. In the absence of risk factors, symptoms, or physical exam suggestive of liver disease, isolated GGT elevation should not require further investigation (1).

One good thing that may come out of finding an isolated elevated GGT is to encourage your patient to curb alcohol consumption or lose weight when indicated. But don’t rely on a normal GGT to rule out heavy alcohol consumption as it may miss 70% to 80% of cases (6)! 

Bonus Pearl: Did you know that GGT activity is thought to increase in alcohol use due to its role in maintaining intracellular glutathione, an anti-oxidant, at adequate levels to protect cells from oxidative stress caused by alcohol?

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1. Carey WD. How should a patient with an isolated GGT elevation be evaluated? Clev Clin J Med 2000;67:315-16. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10832186
2. Newsome PN, Cramb R, Davison SM, et al. Guidelines on the management of abnormal liver blood tests. Gut 2018;67:6-19. https://gut.bmj.com/content/gutjnl/67/1/6.full.pdf
3. Whitfield JB, Pounder RE, Neale G, et al. Serum gamma-glutamyl transpeptidase activity in liver disease. Gut 1972;13:702-8. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/4404786
4. Tekin O, Uraldi C, Isik B, et al. Clinical importance of gamma glutamyltransferase in the Ankara-Pursaklar region of Turkey. Medscape General Medicine 2004;6(1):e16. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1140713/
5. Van Beek JHDA, de Moor MHM, Geels LM, et al. The association of alcohol intake with gamma-glutamyl transferase (GGT) levels:evidence for correlated genetic effects. Drug Alcohol Depend 2014;134:99-105. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3909645/

6. Bertholet N, Winter MR, Cheng DM, et al. How accurate are blood (or breath) tests for identifying self-reported heavy drinking among people with alcohol dependence? Alcohol and Alcoholism 2014;49:423-29. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4060735/pdf/agu016.pdf

What’s causing an isolated GGT elevation in my patient with an abnormal alkaline phosphatase on her routine admission lab?