There are legal drugs, and illegal drugs. It would be nice if the legal ones were harmless, and the illegal ones were harmless – but it’s just not like that.
Alcohol is legal, and popular, throughout most of the world. However, it also causes not only damage to health, but also massive social damage and economic harm.
Accordingly, there’s a strong argument for developing a safer alternative – a drug that fits into alcohol’s social niche, but without the disadvantages. One that doesn’t give you a raging hangover, liver cirrhosis, or make you inclined to punch a passer-by for looking at you the wrong way.
One man who’s working on this project is Professor David Nutt, of Imperial College, London. He was famously sacked for telling the government that its drugs policy was unscientific nonsense.
Now, he’s turned his attention to alcohol. If he’s successful, it could mean that the drinks industry will need a major rethink.
If you invest in the drinks industry or licensed trade, you need to read this…
AL: David, I wanted to start by talking about your motivation. Why are you working in this field?
DN: My first exposure to the paradoxical effects of alcohol came on my first evening as an undergraduate at Cambridge. After the pub closed, our group wandered off to the college common room – where a bottle of spirits appeared. At about midnight, one of the students suddenly burst into a terrible wailing. There were real tears, and desperately soul-jerking content. I thought he might be suicidal – but the others persuaded me it was just the alcohol talking. This extreme behavioural change became a regular occurrence when he went out drinking, so I avoided evenings with him as much as possible. The profound impact of alcohol on the mind of an intelligent and (now) successful doctor made me wonder – how could a simple molecule have such intense effects on the brain, both good and bad.
Once I hit the wards, as a medical trainee, I discovered that alcohol was ever-present – in work as well as play. In my days as a junior doctor, the hospitals still had bars. We centred our social life on them every night – though in moderation when on call. However, in marked contrast, the casualty departments revealed the antisocial effects of alcohol – aggression, disinhibition and damage. But the negative impacts of alcohol were present throughout the rest of the hospital as well. We had multiple fractures from road accidents in the orthopaedic wards; cirrhosis of the liver in the gastro unit; and patients in alcohol-poisoning crisis in the acute medical wards. Much of my time was spent trying to stop people damaging themselves through excess alcohol intake – but with little success.
Sadly, the careers of certain colleagues teetered on the edge as alcohol-related problems ate into their clinical competence. It led to General Medical Council complaints, as well as destroying their marriages and families.
All of this led me to my current SARAA journey. If my team and I are successful then maybe the experiences of the next generation of doctors will be nothing like mine!
AL: SARAA – what’s that?
DN: SARAA stands for “seeking a responsible alternative to alcohol”. My team and I are currently on a mission to find a suitable alcohol alternative – one that gives the pleasurable effects of alcohol, without the harm.
AL: How do you propose to do this?
DN: The physically harmful effects of alcohol largely stem from its primary metabolite: acetaldehyde. This is a toxic substance that is produced by the liver in the process of eliminating alcohol from the body. For a while I researched the possibility of making an antidote to alcohol, with some success. I identified substances that could wake rats up from an alcohol-induced stupor, but soon realised the clinical benefit of such drugs would be limited. The alcohol was intrinsically toxic, due to the acetaldehyde produced in its metabolism. Acetaldehyde causes enormous damage to many people, and it is produced in the liver every single time we drink an alcoholic beverage.
Then it came to me… the answer was not to work with alcohol but to take a whole new approach and find an alternative. Something we could all use like alcohol for social pleasure, but which would be much less harmful. Sobering people up, as in my previous research toward an antidote, might just aggravate the medical harms of alcohol – because the person can simply just drink more.
Drinks and foods that make us feel good, and which grease the wheels of social interaction, are not a new idea. For millennia, cultures have enjoyed drinks such as kava, bhang and others – made from plant products. These have not caught on in the west: kava has been banned in some countries, through fear of toxicity; and bhang, being a cannabis-based milkshake, is illegal in most. So, I decided to use my knowledge of the pharmacology of alcohol to find candidate substances. The aim was to mimic alcohol’s good effects, but be free from its bad. A key goal was to avoid overwhelming the body with acetaldehyde. So, a search began.
AL: How is your search going? Have you found any suitable substances?
DN: A decade of searching databases and studying research papers allowed me to identify a number of promising substances that I thought had potential. Getting access to them wasn’t easy – but we have now tested a number of “SARAA candidates” (as we call them) and so far, my predictions have held out. Positive effects are felt, while the flood of acetaldehyde is avoided – and, so far, without the alcohol hangover.
AL: So where to from here?
DN: The big challenge now is to move from the research arena, to the public. A synthetic alternative to alcohol is radical. In order to make the concept easier to understand we developed “Alcarelle” as our brand. This reflects the Canderel approach of reducing the harm of sugar. That gave the public the pleasant taste of sugar – but without the actual sugar and accompanying calorie spike. We want to offer the pleasurable effects of alcohol, but without the flood of acetaldehyde that alcohol inevitably brings. As the press likes to point out, we’re expecting to avoid the classic alcohol hangover. There is still important clinical work to be done, and a regulatory process to be followed. But we have a strong team, a lot of public support, and I think we are close. What we require today to complete the SARAA journey are investors with the same vision!
AL: How big of a market is there for SARAA? Are you having success in finding investors?
DN: Alcohol is a one-trillion-pound global business today. It has been an important part of how people come together to socialise and celebrate for over 10,000 years. I myself enjoy a fine wine, and have been known to celebrate important moments with a glass of champagne, and that is not going to change. Thankfully, today’s consumer is more health conscious and is generally looking for wider and more informed choices, including “free from” food alternatives. Science has moved so far in the past ten years and I feel we are on the edge of an important breakthrough. For our vision to become reality we need to partner with the drinks industry, to engage their creativity and the enormous supply chain infrastructure that is already in place. Fortunately the idea of building a successful business, while satisfying an important need, is very appealing to a wide range of people – and we are now in discussions to secure the investment needed to bring Alcarelle to market.
What do you think this will do to your drinks – and your investments? Please send your drunken ramblings to: email@example.com.