Especially at this time of year, we’re all more than familiar with the physical dangers and social catastrophes: car accidents, girls passed out on the train, street brawls, regrettable office holiday parties. But there’s also the basic toxicity of alcohol — especially the byproduct created by the liver, acetaldehyde.
We know instinctively that acetaldehyde is a poison. The muscle aches and misery of a hangover make this painfully obvious. Yet the true physical impacts of alcohol — such as its contribution to over 15 kinds of cancer, in addition to liver cirrhosis and brain damage — are little discussed.
There’s a reason for that, says David Nutt, director of the Neuropsychopharmacology Unit in the Division of Brain Sciences at Imperial College in London, who is leading an initiative to make a safer alternative. “The drinks industry has worked hard to underplay the impacts of alcohol, so the public is kept ignorant,” he says. “And to be fair, most of us don’t want to know, because we like to drink.”
We all know about the cardiovascular benefits of red wine, but those benefits vanish if you consume too much (more than one glass a day for women, three for men). Nonetheless, the stress relief that comes with alcohol is significant.
That’s why Nutt has been trying for 10 years to develop something with all the pros and few of the cons: a synthetic version of alcohol that provides the same warm, lubricating effect in the brain but is not carcinogenic or toxic, cannot make you truly drunk, or give you a hangover — and has no calories to boot.
To make such a dream compound, Nutt has examined over 80 chemicals.Finally he thinks he’s found the winner and is looking to raise £7 million in initial investment for his startup, Alcarelle.
Nutt won’t reveal much about what this compound is or why it has the properties he seeks, lest someone else get to market with it first. Pretty much all we know is that it’s a chemical you could add to other liquids, such as juice.
If it really does work, it’s easy to see why demand would be high. With Millennials drinking and smoking less than any generation in recent history, there’s an obvious market. Women would find it especially appealing: we have less of the enzyme that processes booze, alcohol dehydrogenase, which mean hangovers can be especially brutal, and the risks of infertility and breast cancer are particularly severe. Plus, about one-third of people in Japan, Korea, China, and Vietnam have a genetic variation that means they cannot process alcohol properly and get severe headaches within hours of drinking.
Nutt’s partner in Alcarelle is David Orren, a mechanical engineer. “Don’t get me wrong — I’m a fan of alcohol, I enjoy good wine and single malts,” says Orren. But he’s sure technology can make them even better.
Indeed, consider all the ways technology has been used to enhance drugs or the delivery system — from e-cigarettes and water bongs to pharmaceuticals and synthetic analogues of hard drugs. Why not alcohol?
Nutt and Orren expect it could take up to four years for the product to cross all the regulatory hurdles that would see it approved for market. In the meantime it would be technically illegal in the U.K. (where drug laws became even tighter two years ago with the Psychoactive Substances Act) for them to give me a sample to try. So I have to take Orren’s word for what it feels like. Drinking a cocktail with Alcarelle’s chemical, he says, makes you feel like you’ve had “two glasses of wine. Warm — but clear. Refreshed. And it will not make you extra inebriated with more doses. Plus it gives you beautiful sleep, no hangover, no toxicity.”
Possibly too good to be true?
Robert Dudley a professor of integrative biology at the University of California, Berkeley, and author of The Drunken Monkey: Why We Drink And Abuse Alcohol, is skeptical that a synthetic molecule could be better for your liver than ethanol, which our bodies have had eons to adapt to. “My instinct is that we have an intrinsic drive to consume ethanol that can’t be replaced,” he says. “It’s our evolutionary heritage and we just have to deal with it.”
Sion Kim Harris, co-director of a substance-abuse research center at Boston Children’s Hospital, says she doubts that a new molecule could come without any risks. “Take e-cigarettes — the narrative at first was ‘here’s this great non-harmful alternative,’” she explains. “But what we are seeing is a rapid rise in young people starting their drug use with e-cigarettes, and then going on to other things and even smoking real cigarettes. If you put out the narrative that there is a healthy alternative, it takes down the inhibition, and those inhibitions are important because whenever we mess with our brain’s reward circuits, you are still activating that circuitry, and that can still lead to addiction.”
It’s important to remember that there have been other circumstances when scientists tried to develop a less addictive and less harmful alternative and only made something more dangerous. Heroin was initially marketed and developed by Bayer in the 1800s as a non-addictive alternative to morphine. The mistake was repeated with oxycontin, which was sold by Purdue Pharma with the promise that it was not addictive. “We are deluding ourselves by saying there is somehow a free lunch when it comes to substances that target the reward circuitry of the brain,” Harris says.
Nutt and Orren are nonetheless optimistic. They plan to bring hangover-free booze to bars as soon as possible and to help liquor companies develop healthier alcoholic drinks. In January they plan new studies to investigate the biology of hangovers.
Even if on paper Alcarelle sounds perfect, Nutt and Orren acknowledge that the cultural barriers will be the biggest. Almost every corner of the earth has a local form of booze, from fine wines to single malt Scotch to craft beers and straight hard vodka, that is entwined into the region’s heritage.
Moreover, it’s undeniable that some people take pride in being able to consume hideous amounts of alcohol — the inherent danger of drinking is part of the fun. In Australia they call it “pissed fitness.” Swinging London in the ’90s had the “ladette” culture — women drinking un-ladylike pints and proving they could outlast the boys. Or consider the booze binges in Russia known as “zapoi,” when Russians get blind drunk daily. The government has repeatedly tried to stamp out the tradition, and never succeeded.
Orren says he simply wants consumers to have more choice. But Nutt describes a bigger objective. He thinks old-fashioned alcohol will disappear within a generation. “We can’t avoid knowing about the harms of alcohol just because we like it,” he says.