Drink without getting drunk, the invention of the decade?
An alcohol substitute that mimics its pleasant buzz without leading to drunkenness and hangovers is being developed by scientists.
By Paul Rodgers and Richard Alleyne
The new substance could have the added bonus of being “switched off” instantaneously with a pill, to allow drinkers to drive home or return to work.
The synthetic alcohol, being developed from chemicals related to Valium, works like alcohol on nerves in the brain that provide a feeling of wellbeing and relaxation.
But unlike alcohol its does not affect other parts of the brain that control mood swings and lead to addiction. It is also much easier to flush out of the body.
Finally because it is much more focused in its effects, it can also be switched off with an antidote, leaving the drinker immediately sober.
The new alcohol is being developed by a team at Imperial College London, led by Professor David Nutt, Britain’s top drugs expert who was recently sacked as a government adviser for his comments about cannabis and ecstasy.
He envisions a world in which people could drink without getting drunk, he said.
No matter how many glasses they had, they would remain in that pleasant state of mild inebriation and at the end of an evening out, revellers could pop a sober-up pill that would let them drive home.
Prof Nutt and his team are concentrating their efforts on benzodiazepines, of which diazepam, the chief ingredient of Valium is one.
Thousands of candidate benzos are already known to science. He said it is just a matter of identifying the closest match and then, if necessary, tailoring it to fit society’s needs.
Ideally, like alcohol, it should be tasteless and colourless, leaving those characteristics to the drink it’s in.
Eventually it would be used to replace the alcohol content in beer, wine and spirits and the recovered ethanol (the chemical name for alcohol) could be sold as fuel.
Professor Nutt believes that the new drug, which would need licensing, could have a dramatic effect on society and improve the nation’s health.
The NHS report Statistics on Alcohol: England, 2009 found more than 800,000 alcohol-related admissions to hospitals in 2007-08 – and more than 6,500 deaths – at a cost to the service of £2.7bn a year.
Some charities estimate that the toll could be up to five times higher. Drink is, for example, a factor in 40 per cent of fatal fires, 15 per cent of drownings, 65 per cent of suicides and 40 per cent of domestic abuse. It also has other costs, including 17 million lost working days a year, worth about £20bn to the economy.
“I’ve been in experiments where I’ve taken benzos,” said Professor Nutt. “One minute I was sedated and nearly asleep, five minutes later I was giving a lecture.
“No one’s ever tried targeting this before, possibly because it will be so hard to get it past the regulators.
“Most of the benzos are controlled under the Medicines Act. The law gives a privileged position to alcohol, which has been around for 3,000 years. But why not use advances in pharmacology to find something safer and better?”
Getting the drug approved could be hard for the team as clinical trials are expensive, and it is not clear who would pay for them, according to Professor Nutt.
He said that the traditional drinks industry has not shown any interest, however some countries might be persuaded to sponsor the team.
Some countries have more liberal regimes than others, though, and Professor Nutt thinks Greece or Spain, within the EU, could lead the way.
The latest Home Office performance figures showed that more than one in four people believe that alcohol is blighting their community.
A survey of every police force area in England and Wales found that 26 per cent of those polled “perceived people being drunk or rowdy in public placed to be a problem in their area” – a slight increase from last year.
The fears over the affects of alcohol range from urban to rural communities, with the worst hit being Manchester, South Wales, London, Northumbria and Gwent.