Genetic Therapy for Alcoholism?

Genetic Therapy for Alcoholism?


Are we on the verge of genetic treatment for alcoholism? It looks like it is going to be a likely play in the near future.

GEN News says that “Scientists in North and South America have developed a form of gene therapy that could feasibly help to treat alcoholism by causing unpleasant physical side effects in individuals who imbibe.”

So when a normal human being drinks alcohol and then starts to metabolize it so that their body can eliminate it, certain genes come into play in order to regulate that process.

One gene in particular, if mutated, drastically diminishes the person’s ability to metabolize the alcohol and break it down properly. Apparently, about half of the Asian population has a regular gene in this case and can metabolize alcohol properly, while the other half of has the mutated gene and cannot. So when the mutated gene person takes a drink of alcohol, they may be fine with just one normal drink of booze, but if they have two or more drinks, their body is going to encounter problems. They basically become flush and get sick and generally feel very uncomfortable.

So the research angle in this case is asking the question: What if we could mutate this gene in people who have dependency problems with alcohol? Couldn’t that help to curb their drinking habits? And the initial data is saying that yes, it most definitely can, and it does.

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This is similar to the idea behind an anti alcohol medication such as Antabuse (Disulfiram), which is taken on a daily basis so that if the alcoholic tries to drink they will get violently ill from doing so.

The problem with Antabuse is that the alcoholic is generally non compliant. Or another way to say it is, if the alcoholic is serious about wanting to drink alcohol again, they simply stop taking the pill every day, and within only a day or two they can start drinking again with no ill effect. I can speak from personal experience in terms of Antabuse because at one time I voluntarily went on the medication, then promptly avoided taking the pill for the purpose of getting drunk again. In other words, I was non compliant, and therefore it did not work for me.

But what if I had a genetic procedure done that permanently changed the way that my body processes alcohol? What if I had this genetic procedure done that is the basic equivalent of “permanent Antabuse?” Could that have helped me?

In some ways I think that may have been more effective. However, looking back, I am not so sure. Why not?

The main reason that I am skeptical is because addicts tend to be resourceful people. If we want something badly enough then we will usually figure out a way to get it, and the very nature of our addiction has taught us how to do that very effectively. So if I had this magical gene therapy that made it as if my body had “permanent Antabuse” inside of it, would this really have stopped me from self medicating?

Hardly likely. Alcohol is but one substance of abuse out of many. There are other drugs that can do almost exactly what alcohol does, and in very similar ways. For example, I can think of at least one substance that causes people to black out, and another substance that causes people to pass out, and neither one of them is alcohol. So for a resourceful addict who is really just looking to escape reality and self medicate, what does it matter if they are restricted from using booze? Sure, alcohol may be the most convenient and the most accessible, but that does not make it the only choice out there. As I said, addicts can be very resourceful people.

The other thing that has to be considered is the public reaction to a genetic therapy that can alter a person in certain ways. There is bound to be some fear and trepidation when it comes to people being accepting of a new medical technology such as this–especially a technology that can alter the way in which we feel, and also lead us to become voluntarily sicker. Essentially what you are doing when you have this genetic mutation performed is to say to the universe “Yes, I would like to get sick and feel more uncomfortable if I drink too much alcohol.” Is that really an idea that people are going to be comfortable with moving forward? Only time will tell, because it certainly looks as if the technology is going to become a reality very quickly.

And then the ultimate question is this: Can such a genetic mutation therapy really change the rate of addiction overall? My sneaking suspicion is telling me that it might not have the results that we are all hoping for while holding our breathes. Why is that?

Again, the main reason is because of our resourcefulness and the fact that alcohol is but one drug out of many. There are many substances that can duplicate and even improve on the effects that people generally desire out of alcohol.

The article also points out that, based on the studies done in the past regarding twins and alcoholism, they know today that genetics accounts for about 80 percent of alcoholism, and environment accounts for the other 20 percent. Meaning that genetic therapy has a chance at seeing a lot of positive numbers posted in the double blind studies that are sure to follow as these new genetic therapies become more available. The also points out that the way in which this genetic research was performed and the proof of concept that it used was strong enough that it certainly warrants further studies and development. In other words, we are almost certain to see this become a real medical solution in the years to come.

While genetic treatment of addiction or alcoholism is an exciting prospect, I think it is important to also be realistic about our own recovery goals. Specifically, it is not advisable for a person to pin their hopes on a future “cure” for addiction or alcoholism, while using that future hope as an excuse to imbibe today. Instead, we have to take advantage of the resources that we have available to us right here and now, and do everything that we can in order to recover within our present reality. Holding out hope for a future cure is a sure sign that we are stuck in denial about what we really want in life.

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