A drug approved last year for smoking cessation has also shown promise for use against alcoholism, researchers at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), announced recently.
Varenicline, currently marketed by Pfizer for smoking cessation under the trade name Chantix, dramatically curbed drinking in alcohol-preferring rats, according to the study, which was published online by The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The synthetic drug was modeled after a cytosine compound from the European Labumum tree, combined with an alkaloid from the poppy plant.
Since an estimated 85 per cent of alcoholics are also cigarette smokers, varenicline could have an immediate effect on this common dual addiction. The drug has already been approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for human use, so Pfizer is likely to be granted a speedy approval for the new indication, sources say. The drug is likely to join Antabuse (disulfiram), Revia (naltrexone), and Campral (acamprosate) as FDA-approved treatments for alcoholism.
Selena Bartlett of the UCSF-affiliated Gallo Clinic and Research Center, a co-author of the study, said that the drug works by disrupting the neuronal “reward pathway” of the brain. Specifically, the drug binds to acetylcholine receptors, a neurotransmitter involved in arousal and attention. Through a cascade effect, stimulating these receptors causes a release of dopamine, one of the primary pleasure chemicals in the brain. Varenicline prevents alcohol and nicotine from causing a release of dopamine at those sites.
“Treatments for alcoholism today are like those for schizophrenia in the ‘60s,” Bartlett said. “People don’t talk about it. There are very few treatments, and most drug companies are not interested in it.”
Bartlett said she hoped the research would spur additional studies of drugs for alcoholism. "It’s a disease. If you’ve inherited a gene variant, of if some other cause leads you to alcohol dependence, it should be treated like any disease."