The future of alcoholic drinks

A new wave of drinks designed to mimic alcohol's effects, but without the hangover or dependency
17 January 2023

Interview with 

David Nutt, GABA Labs


Pouring a glass of red wine


In Star Trek they called it "synthehol" - an alcohol substitute that simulates the look and feel of alcohol, but for which - in the words of Commander Data -  "the intoxicating effects are easily dismissed". And just like many of the prescient technologies made famous by Kirk and his successors, this is close to becoming a reality. Imperial College neuropharmacologist David Nutt at his company GABAlabs are working on alcohol replacements; one is entirely synthetic and refreshes all the same the parts of the body that many beers and other beverages can reach, but without the risk of an unpleasant hangover - it's called Alcarelle and we'll hear about that shortly; the other, called Sentia, is a carefully selected cocktail of herb extracts that hit many of the same brain pathways that booze does to produce a mild and short lived intoxicating effect. So how do they work?

David - So if you drink Sentia, it's been designed to taste like an attractive vermouth. And after a few minutes you begin to get the effect, a sense of some relaxation around the jaw. And then, the beginning of relaxation is inside your head, in your mind, you become more sociable, more convivial. You chat a little more. Look, if you're doing it socially, which is what we of course encourage people to do, because alcohol is the ultimate social drug. We start to look at people more and smile more, interact better.

Chris - How long will that persist for?

David - So with Sentia, the effect lasts for about 25 to 35 minutes.

Chris - How does it work?

David -
So in the Sentia botanical drink, there are a number of food grade herbs, which we have selected specifically because they contain within them molecules which work on the GABA system. And the impact of this drink is, we believe, driven largely by a slight increase in the function of the GABA system, which produces this state of relaxation and sociality.

Chris - When you say the GABA system, this is the brain's inhibitory circuits that are also targeted by alcoholic boosts, their effects when you drink. So you are going for basically the same brain target, but you're getting there using different chemicals to do it?

David - That's correct. GABA is the main inhibitory system in the brain. We are targeting GABA because that's the primary target of low doses of alcohol. And the advantage of that is that we avoid targeting all the other transmitter systems that alcohol affects, particularly as you take bigger doses. So most of the problems with alcohol come because it starts to interact with other neurotransmitter systems.

Chris - And did we know that these herbs would have this effect or did you have to go through brute force and just find things that looked promising and then test them out?

David - So we started off looking for herbs, which had GABA containing molecules. But the other criteria were that they had to have been available for certainly decades. In fact, most of them have been around for hundreds of years and known to have calming effects. So there are herbs out there which have historically, traditionally been used for relaxation and calming. We targeted those and selected the ones where the effects could be generally predicted to be due to the GABA system.

Chris - And what data have you generated so far looking at the effect of this on the general public and whether it affects everyone the same amount to the same degree and what the safety profile of this is?

David - The safety profile, we believe to be as safe as the herbs. And as I say, all the herbs are approved either as foods or as food supplements. So we're fairly comfortable that these historically used herbs are safe. In terms of the magnitude of the effect, the effect is equivalent to perhaps a half a pint of beer, a small glass of wine. We don't want to get people very intoxicated and you can't get very intoxicated for two reasons. One is if you drank a whole bottle, the effect wouldn't be particularly greater because alcohol takes about an hour to get rid of a unit of alcohol. Whereas we get a much faster clearance. So we believe that even if you took a lot, you would have very little signs of impairment.

Chris - And presumably because there isn't that cumulative effect with dose, it's less likely that someone would become hooked on this.

David - Yes. We think that what we are doing, targeting the GABA system, minimizes, I can't say it completely eliminates, but we think it will minimize risk of dependence because we know that one of the key drivers for alcohol dependence and craving is turning on the dopamine system. And, and we have consciously chosen herbs, which we believe will not do that. So that's likely to reduce the craving that some people have for alcohol. And particularly that craving, which leads people to lose control when they start off intending just to have one or two drinks and going on a binge.

Chris - With the approach you've taken, you are to a certain extent, constrained by the hand that nature has dealt you. Could you do this a different way and say, well, we know what we want to achieve and we're gonna rationally design something that isn't alcohol but does have some of the same effects in the same way as you've done with the herbs, but you can get an even better effect or an even more tailored outcome that's even more desirable for what you want.

David - That's exactly what we're trying to do, Chris, yes. And we have invented small molecules which target subtypes of the GABA system with a deliberate ambition to do exactly what you say, to mimic the effects of alcohol in a much more specific way. The plan is to have, and I have a bottle of it here a synthetic molecule which we call Alcarelle. It's a direct pun on Candarel. Candarel was a molecule developed to give you the pleasure of sugar, the sweetness, without the calories. And Alcarelle is designed to mimic the pleasure of alcohol with much less in the way of harm. And also by the way, a lot less in terms of calories too. So Alcarelle will be an ingredient that we will license to drink companies, any drink company in the world will be able to make drinks which contain Alcarelle rather than ethanol. We see this as being an ingredient that can be used extensively as an alternative to Alcohol.

Chris - You said you've got a bottle of it sitting in front of you. Is this ready to go or is it a bit like if you were coming up with a pharmaceutical drug for Covid, for example, we know there are lots of trials that have to be done on lots of people and that takes lots of time and lots of money. Have you got to do that, or is the food and drink industry a bit different?

David - No, it has to go through food safety testing. I should say if it was a drug for Covid, it would be on the market already. Because if we had the same interest in governments reducing the harms of alcohol as they have shown they have for reducing the harms of Covid, there will be massive investment. There are three and a half million deaths a year globally from alcohol. It's not far off what we've had with Covid. But yes, we have to take Alcarelle through food safety testing and that testing will take between two and four years.

Chris - But you've tested it presumably on yourself if you've got a bottle of it sitting there?

David - Yes.

Chris - Is it good?

David - Well, it does what it will say on the bottle. That's true.

Chris - <laugh>. Well, I'll raise a glass to that. David, thank you very much for joining us, to tell us about it.

David - Thank you, Chris. It's been a pleasure.


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