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.