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Gene therapy for boozing

Sun, 6th Jan 2008

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If you’ve overindulged at the bar this festive season, you might be interested in the latest research from Professor Yedy Israel and his colleagues.  They’ve managed to develop a gene therapy that can cut long-term drinking. But the problem is that is only works if you’re a rat.

Rattus norvegicus, the Brown Rat.The treatment is based on the gene for aldehyde hydrogenase, called ALDH2, an enzyme that helps the body to break down alcohol.  Some people of East Asian origin have a faulty version of the ALDH2 gene which means they can’t get rid of the toxic chemicals that are produced when alcohol is broken down.  So they feel sick, get flushed and have a pounding heart after very few drinks.

The gene therapy works by injecting what’s known as an “antisense” version of the ALDH2 gene into the bloodstream, where it interferes with the normal activity of ALDH2.  This means that the enzyme can’t be produced properly, and toxic alcohol by-products build up, causing their unpleasant effects.

The researchers tested the treatment on rats that had been bred to be heavy boozers, and were also regularly fed the equivalent of strong lager.  After a single injection of the gene therapy, the treated rats cut their alcohol consumption by half, for at least a month, although it didn’t render them completely teetotal.

There has been some controversy about the safety of gene therapy, but there are currently more than a thousand clinical trials of gene therapies for various diseases taking place around the world.

But there’s a long way to go before we could see this kind of gene therapy being given to heavy drinkers here.  For example, the researchers need to find out if the antisense genes can get into the brain, or affect developing eggs and sperm.  It might also be helpful to discover if the therapy can be specifically targeted to the liver.

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