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Researchers discover new way to potentially treat and prevent alcoholism

Early cross-species tests have had favorable results

Photo (c) KatarzynaBialasiewicz - Getty Images
Treating patients for alcoholism can be difficult for healthcare professionals, as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved only a few different treatment options.

Researchers from Oregon Health and Science University are in the process of developing another method, as they’ve discovered a new gene that, when targeted, could be effective in treating or preventing the condition.

“The study highlights the importance of using cross-species approaches to identify and test relevant drugs for the treatment of alcohol use disorder,” said researcher Rita Cervera-Juanes, PhD.

A viable treatment option

In order to come to their findings, the researchers analyzed primated that had consumed higher levels of alcohol and compared them to other subjects that had not has similar exposure.

The researchers linked a weakened expression of a gene -- GPR39 -- that had previously been associated with depression to primates that drank more. According to the researchers, alcohol abuse and mood disorders are closely related, as those who suffer with alcoholism are nearly four times more likely to also have depression.

Knowing what gene to target, the researchers injected mice with a liquid that works the same way as the GPR39 gene to see if that would affect the way mice consumed alcohol. The mice consumed nearly 50 percent less alcohol when the researchers increased their GPR39 levels.

Moving forward, the researchers are planning to explore how this gene affects humans with alcoholism. The team will begin by analyzing brain tissue from those who have died but suffered with alcohol abuse while alive.

“We are finding novel targets for which there are drugs already available, and they can be repurposed to treat other ailments,” said Cervera-Juanes. “For alcoholism, this is huge because there are currently only a handful of FDA-approved drugs.”

Health risks

Many researchers in the last year have explored the negative health effects associated with alcohol -- even in small doses.

Researchers found that consumers who drank four times per week -- even just one or two drinks at a time -- were 20 percent more likely to die prematurely. Similarly, a study from last summer found that no amount of alcohol was safe. Despite national guidelines which suggest that drinking in moderation is safe for adults’ health, researchers found that may not be the case.

“Alcohol use is a leading risk factor for global disease burden and causes substantial health loss,” the researchers wrote in the report. “We found that the risk of all-cause mortality, and of cancers specifically, rises with increasing levels of consumption, and the level of consumption that minimizes health loss is zero.”

Excessive drinking was responsible for three million deaths in 2016, and men were found to be at a greater risk than women. Over two million men died due to excessive drinking, while less than one million women died to the same cause; the researchers found that excessive drinking led to conditions like cancer, digestive disease, cardiovascular disease, infectious disease, and injury, all of which contributed to death.

“Far too many people, their families and communities suffer the consequences of the harmful use of alcohol through violence, injuries, mental health problems, and diseases like cancer and stroke,” said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization. “It’s time to step up action to prevent this serious threat to the development of societies.”

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