Alcohol Vaccine: A True Advance in the Treatment of Alcoholism?

A new alcohol vaccine being developed in Chile by Dr. Juan Asenjo is in Stage 2 clinical trials. The vaccine builds on what happens naturally in certain people when they drink alcohol. About 20 percent of the Japanese, Chinese, and Korean population have an alcohol intolerance mutation that the vaccine triggers. Once the vaccine is administered, if a patient takes one sip of alcohol, the result is instant, hardcore hangover. Although such a potential advance in the treatment of alcoholism is impressive, it is essential to remain wary of attempts to find a medical miracle to cure what is essentially the three-fold disease of alcoholism: mental, spiritual, and physical.

Researchers will first test the vaccine on mice; human trials began in November of 2012. Asenjo and his team initally revealed their intentions to develop an alcoholism vaccine in January, 2011, the Agence France-Presse (AFP) notes. The genetic therapy targets the enzymes that metabolize alcohol. In animal tests, it was found to cut in half dependent rats’ consumption of alcohol. As lead researcher, Dr. Asenjo has much higher aspirations for the vaccine’s effect on humans. He believes the serum could reduce alcohol consumption by at least 90 percent in human beings.

Director of the University’s Institute for Cell Dynamics and Biotechnology, Dr. Asenjo told the “Santiago Times”: “If it works, it’s going to have a worldwide impact, but with many vaccines, one has to test them carefully. I think the chances that this one will work are quite high.” The aspirations of Dr. Asenjo make sense in light of the incredible damage done by alcoholism and alcohol abuse worldwide.

According to the World Health Organization’s (WHO) 2011 global status report, alcohol is the world’s third-largest risk factor for disease and disability. Excessive alcohol use leads to 2.5 million deaths annually worldwide. There are approximately 80,000 deaths attributable to excessive alcohol use each year in the United States alone, making excessive alcohol use the third-leading lifestyle-related cause of death for the nation, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And U.S. Congressional findings indicate that an estimated 10 million Americans are problem drinkers.

Since the problem of alcohol abuse is so extreme, how exactly does Dr. Asenjo’s alcohol vaccine work? 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. 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, and acetaldehyde accumulates. As a result, whenever they drink alcohol, they feel terrible and experience something like an instant hangover.

Dr. 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… With the vaccine, the desire to consume alcohol will be greatly reduced thanks to these reactions,” Dr. Asenjo told Radio Cooperativa according to the AFP.

When injected, the vaccine works by sending a message to the liver to keep it from expressing the genes the metabolize alcohol. The results are characteristic of a medically induced hangover that is incredibly unpleasant. Delivered in a single injection, the vaccine remains active in a patient’s system for at least six months. What is even more intriguing is that the vaccine cannot be reversed during this six-month period: once the injection is taken, there is no turning back.

It remains to be seen if an alcohol vaccine is enough to solve the complex problem of the disease of alcoholism. After all, isn’t addressing the physiological part of alcohol addiction just one piece of the puzzle? A patient’s alcoholic tendencies could very well manifest themselves in other ways as replacement addictions. Instead of alcohol, perhaps former alcoholics will move on to prescription-drug abuse or other negative expressions of the disease of alcoholism. While this is certainly a relevant point, at this stage, a wait-and-see attitude seems the best approach.

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