A New Vaccine For Drinking Could Keep Alcoholics Sober

After getting an injection, the drug makes just one drink give you an instant, horrible hangover.

Imagine this: you’re an alcoholic who has tried everything to quit drinking. No luck. So you go to your doctor, who gives you a vaccine that could change your life. All of a sudden, you’re a new person. Every drink you try to take makes you nauseous, gives you tachycardia—essentially, drinks now give you the equivalent of a horrific hangover. You’re no longer an alcoholic (physically, at least) as long as you go in every six months to get a new vaccine.

It sounds like something out of a dystopian science fiction novel, but it’s real. Dr. Juan Asenjo, the director of the Institute for Cell Dynamics and Biotechnology at Universidad de Chile, is working with colleagues on an alcoholism vaccine that makes alcohol intolerable to anyone who drinks it.

The vaccine builds on what happens naturally in certain people—about 20% of the Japanese, Chinese, and Korean population—with an alcohol intolerance mutation. Normally, the liver breaks down alcohol into an enzyme that’s transformed into the compound acetaldehyde (responsible for that nasty hangover feeling), which in turn is degraded by another enzyme. The acetaldehyde doesn’t usually have time to build up before it’s broken down. But people with the alcohol intolerance mutation lack the ability to produce that second enzyme; acetaldehyde accumulates, and they feel terrible.

Asenjo and his colleagues have come up with a way to stop the synthesis of that second enzyme via a vaccine, mimicking the mutation that sometimes happens naturally. "People have this mutation all over the world. It’s like how some people can’t drink milk," explains Asenjo.

So far, the vaccine has been tested successfully on alcoholic mice. With one dose of the vaccine, the mice’s drinking habits diminish by 50% for 30 days. Next, researchers in Mumbai, India, will conduct pre-clinical trials on larger numbers of mice. Asenjo believes that phase-one human trials could begin as soon as the end of 2013. "If phase-one trials go okay, it’s up to the pharmaceutical industry really [what happens next]," he says. Pharmaceutical companies haven’t expressed much interest thus far, however.

Asenjo says the vaccine will be very cheap—perhaps why those pharmaceutical companies aren’t too excited—and will need to be administered every six months to a year.

Addressing the physiological part of alcohol addiction is just one piece of the battle. Addictive tendencies could very well manifest in other ways; instead of alcohol, perhaps former addicts will move on to cigarettes. Asenjo admits as much: "Addiction is a psychological disease, a social disease. Obviously this is only the biological part of it." But with the biological piece of the disease taken care of, a big part of the battle is already won.

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  • Moopy

    Antabuse has been around for years - a tablet one can take with similar effects - taken daily. Works for some.
    Addicts don't always agree to take it consistently when they are struggling, to allow for some 'busts', and thus the psychological aspects of addiction override their original intention to stay on it. I doubt those same addicts would not be keen on a permanent-lasting or even longer-lasting solution, so do they get forced to?
    This is not really a valuable innovation, these researchers should go back to something more worthwhile.

  • pwndecaf

    I had tried that, or something like it, but it worked the same as my usual behavior.  When I was feeling good enough to start drinking again, I would stop taking it, wait about 4 days until I knew I could get a buzz on without killing myself (never long enough, that first day or two is iffy) and then back to full-time drinking.

    I'm sure I still have some antabuse around as I just quit taking it altogether.  It interfered with my drinking too much.  I did eventually quit drinking 20 years ago, but not before reaching bottom.  It may be the only real way to succeed.  I would not agree to take this "vaccine."

  • Erik Erikson

    The key in what you wrote is "daily".  According to the article, this "vaccine" changes it so that they only have to accept or concede to treatment once or twice a year instead of 365 or 366 times a year.  Seems material.  A moment of sanity, clarity, or defeat once a year is not difficult to induce.

  • Pete

    In an addiction, there is a world of difference between "taken daily" and "taken every 6 months". 

    With antabuse, every single day you can relapse; and once you do so, you stop taking it at all since now the addiction is stronger. 

    With something like this - the 6 months are enough time to change all your addiction-facilitating habits (and possibly people around you), and when the effect stops you are in a much safer position.

  • Journalistsarethick

    "Normally, the liver breaks down alcohol into an enzyme that’s
    transformed into the compound acetaldehyde (responsible for that nasty
    hangover feeling), which in turn is degraded into another enzyme. "

    No, you dipshit journalist; learn some basic science! An enzyme is a protein which makes a reaction proceed. It's a biological catalyst. Without it, the reaction cannot proceed (at any physiologically reasonable speed at least).

    Your sentence should read:

    "Normally, an enzyme within the liver breaks down alcohol into the compound acetaldehyde, which is a toxic metabolite and is what causes the symptoms of a hangover. Acetaldehyde is then degraded further by another enzyme into a harmless metabolite (acetic acid)."

    Alcohol --[via alcohol dehydrogenase]--> Acetaldehyde --[via acetaldehyde dehydrogenase]--> Acetic acid.

    The logic here is that the "vaccine" prevents a person's liver from having that second enzyme, thus the second stage where acetaldehyde is converted to acetic acid, doesn't happen very quickly. This means that acetaldehyde levels build up, causing the person to feel like shit.

    There's a drug which does a similar thing by blocking that second enzyme. It's called Disulfiram, and it's been around for 90 years. The breakthrough here is the twice yearly dosing regime thus making compliance much better, not the mechanism of action of the drug.

    Source: I'm a medical doctor, not a liberal arts graduate thinking they can do "science".

  • Gold

    While the delivery could have been better I can't blame the commenter for their frustration.  The information in the commentors post should have been in the original article.  They took the time to explain why they were frustrated at the original article and you all got an education into how this sort of thing actually works.  You're response was to call the commentor a "huge douche" and "dipshit".

    That's a totally reasonable response...  <-- sarcasm (pointing it out because I don't believe these people could spot it)

    Personally I think the OP is at fault here. It's not hard to do this sort of research these days and as a Journo their *job* is doing that research so that we, the readers, don't have to get the actual facts via the comments.

  • Guest

    Thanks for the education, but the insults and job based discrimination wasn't really necessary... it's not their fault they don't share your expertise. As someone said, show a little more class.

  • peter

    You are a medical doctor. Please consider showing a bit more class when responding.

  • Jesus

    "Pharmaceutical companies haven’t expressed much interest thus far, however."

    Of course they haven't and won't! Pharmaceuticals are one of the primary degraders to American society to begin with. Their goal is not to cure people, their goal is to attain a level of consistent and sustainable income derived from the sale of their patentable drugs. They make money off of illness, they have no economic incentive to improve the health of the constituents of this nation unless it is a PR scene.