Home > ‘Safe’ alcohol: too good to be true?

[Medical Independent] , Reilly, Catherine ‘Safe’ alcohol: too good to be true? (03 Apr 2014)

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Catherine Reilly looks at radical research into developing ‘safe’ synthetic alcohol and examines the overall health and societal impact of alcohol abuse.

Imagine a future with a version of alcohol that does not damage the liver, heart or brain, is less likely to cause dependence, and has easily reversible effects. Prof David Nutt, the Edmond J Safra Professor of Neuropsychopharmacology at Imperial College London, is not just imagining this future – he is chasing it.

Safe synthetic alcohol could ultimately save the lives of millions of people every year, he tells the Medical Independent (MI). “To achieve that would be one of the great advances in Western medicine,” he says.

Prof Nutt, former Chairman of the UK Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, is leading research aimed at creating a synthetic alcohol that targets the same receptors as the neurotransmitter, gamma aminobutyric acid, which has a calming effect on the central nervous system. The substance would seem like any other drink but with the added benefit of an antidote. “So you can go to a party, have a good time, take the antidote, and you can then drive home safely.”

This may sound like an idyll to many: but would induced relaxation not result in some of the same issues associated with alcohol, such as reckless behaviour?

“I think we can have a plateau, a maximum effect which is below the level of loss of control,” answers Prof Nutt. “The thing about alcohol is, once you get to a certain level, you get so intoxicated that you don’t know what you are doing, you lose judgement, and then people do very dangerous things. By being very clever with how we make this molecule, we can avoid intense intoxication.”

Prof Nutt is working with colleagues at Imperial College London and other experts on this initiative. “We are looking for funding – we have got one or two potential investors now. We are going to the stage of getting the prototypes tested,” he tells MI.

Until such a game-changer emerges, however, the issue of alcohol misuse will continue to play out as a tug of war between politicians of various hues, policy makers, public health specialists and the drinks industry.

Prof Nutt says David Cameron’s government — “lobbied to death” by the drinks industry — “chickened out” on plans to introduce minimum pricing and he underlines the importance of measures such as eliminating cheap alcohol, ending alcohol advertising and banning sponsorship of sporting events by the drinks industry.

Will the Irish Government ‘chicken out’ on alcohol policy too? Some would suggest that, to a certain extent, it already has. The Government approved a wide-ranging package of measures on alcohol misuse in October. However, it stalled a decision on whether to ban sponsorship of sporting events by drinks companies, following an earlier proposal from the Department of Health that supported its phasing out by 2020. This move was blocked by a number of ministers. Instead, it was announced in October that a “working group” was being established to report on the “value, evidence, feasibility and implications” of regulating such sponsorship; and to consider financial implications and alternative sources of funding for sporting organisations to replace potential lost revenue arising from any such regulation.


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