He'll drink to that: Why isn't anyone cheering for synthetic alcohol?

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IF ONE was looking for a lyrical sage with the power to divine the future, most people would skip past a certain Mr Lewis, the mullet-haired frontman of Huey Lewis and The News. Sure, we all tapped our toes to The Power Of Love, but who knew that their 1984 track, I Want A New Drug, could spell the salvation of Scotland's drink sodden soul?

In a startling act of prescience, Lewis sang: "I want a new drug/one that won't make me sick/one that won't make me crash my car/or make me feel three feet thick."

A quarter of a century later and the power-pop singer's wish could soon be granted. Scientists are developing a synthetic alcohol that will allow drinkers to enjoy the mellow squishiness of a substantial bevvy session without the long-term corrosive effect on their vital organs – and, most importantly, that will allow them to sober up in seconds by administering an antidote. They could even drive home.

Science fiction already boasts such a magic potion – "synthenol" is supped by Captain Picard and crew on Star Trek: The Next Generation. But if a certain real-life professor gets his way it could be coming to an optic near you in the next decade or so.

Fresh from eviction by the Home Secretary from his chairmanship of the independent Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs after saying Ecstasy is safer than alcohol, Professor David Nutt, who holds the Edmond J Safra chair of neuropsychopharmacology at Imperial College in London, is now hard at work on a prototype of a synthetic alcohol (see panel for how it works) that gives a chemical high.

"The prototype is in the form of a tablet or injection," he explained last week. "In the future I envisage it as a liquid to mix with a fruity drink. When a person wanted to sober up they could take another liquid which would act as an antidote. I hope eventually a person would be able to take the antidote then drive home, but this is still a long way off."

Writing about his plans last week he said: "At the moment we don't have a sensible approach to alcohol – it's time for a discussion about safe alternatives. You are never going to stop people enjoying a drink. But if they are going to drink, let them do it without the terrible risks of alcohol. Hopefully, in the future, people will raise a toast over my grave with a glass of synthetic booze."

In order to speed up the development of synthetic alcohol, Nutt last week called on the Scottish Government to support the development of such a product and assist in its legalisation and public use. "Someone needs to step up to the plate. This is the country to do it. Scotland has the highest rate of cirrhosis in the world, you have overtaken France and are the bottom of the world league in the damage caused by alcohol.

"The Scottish Government is now beginning to talk sensibly about intervening with alcohol and minimum pricing and I think the Scots government should say: 'We want an alcohol substitute. We want to encourage people to make one and if it's good we will allow it to be used and price it the same as alcohol."

As a society we have shown that we can take calories out of food, pregnancy out of sex, and even sex out of pregnancy, so why not take the harm out of alcohol? Or does the world really require yet another mind-altering drug?

Only those who view the scent of vomit as a perfume and enjoy dodging the inebriated zombies that stagger through our city streets each weekend could fail to appreciate the scale of Scotland's alcohol problem. Last week, figures from ChildLine revealed that more than 200 Scottish children called the charity last year with concerns about their parents' harmful drinking– twice as many as in the rest of the UK. Scotland is one of the heaviest drinking countries in Europe, with more than 1,400 alcohol-related deaths last year. Scots are also twice as likely to suffer an alcohol-related death as those in the rest of the UK.

Earlier this year figures from the Scottish Government suggested that the country wasn't quite as bad as Nutt said but that it had the eighth highest alcohol consumption level in the world. Scots drank nearly 50 million litres of pure alcohol in 2007 – equivalent to 11.8 litres per capita for every person aged over 16. This is considerably higher than in England and Wales, which had an average consumption figure of 9.9 litres per capita.

So why are we not rushing to embrace a harm-free substitute? Haven't we already seen the benefits of harm reduction with other dangerous drugs such as heroin and nicotine? Yet the fact is we have already developed booze-related treatments. Twenty years ago the pharmaceutical company Roche developed a compound that would undo the behavioural effects of drunkenness and so sober a person up almost immediately. Unfortunately, while it rendered the person alert and returned their dexterity it did not dilute their blood alcohol level which, in the event of a car crash, would still prove drunkenness.

Then there is the drug propylthiouracil, which is usually prescribed for an overactive thyroid but has also been shown to protect against cirrhosis of the liver in alcoholics, yet is rarely proscribed for fear that it will allow them to continue drinking. Similarly, one fear about harmless synthetic alcohol is that it would encourage excessive inebriation.

But the biggest problem with developing synthetic alcohol is the law. Despite the fact that alcohol is both highly addictive and psychoactive, it is regulated not as a drug but as a foodstuff, while any alternative would be regulated as a drug, raising potential barriers to its eventual sale in clubs and bars, as Nutt one day hopes. "If I developed it and sold it today the government would put me in prison," said the professor. "Meanwhile the drinks manufacturers get knighthoods for selling it."

His rationale, he says, is hard to argue with. "This new approach is designed to do three things. The first is to allow an antidote for people with alcohol poisoning, the second is to stop the liver, heart, gut and brain damage and all the other organs damaged by alcohol and the third is to get rid of the dependence-producing qualities. Those are the three reasons for developing it."

At the moment Nutt believes a basic synthetic alcohol could be developed in a year or so and a more complex drug with all the emotional nuances of alcohol could be completed within three to five years if, that is, the government supported the idea and investors stepped in to raise the estimated 10 million cost. Yet so far, major pharmaceutical companies remain wary of the field, for as Ian Ragan, a pharmaceutical company researcher who now works as a consultant, told New Scientist: "The pharmaceutical industry does not position itself to be going into the recreational market." He explained there are always risks when you take a drug, and while those risks maybe worth taking if you are treating a life-threatening disease such as alcohol addiction they are harder to justify for those who merely wish to get smashed.

So what are the chances that, in a few years' time you can walk into a bar, order a few flagons of synthetic alcohol, drink yourself into a mild high, before returning to crisp sobriety with the pop of a pill? To judge by the stern frowns on the faces of those at the front line of Scotland's alcohol awareness, it would be unwise to plan for a few rounds.

Colin Wilkinson of the Scottish Licensing Trade Association remained unconvinced by Nutt's idea. He said: "Professor Nutt's plan seems to be focused on the effects of alcohol, whereas most people just love the atmosphere and taste of drinking alcohol. It doesn't solve the problem that with drinking it is all down to moderation.

"What if you don't take the antidote? If you are drunk, the chances are that you would probably forget to take it and then you are back at square one, people drinking and driving. I just don't see how this could work or how people would accept it."

Cultural factors were also raised by Jack Law, chief executive of Alcohol Focus Scotland. "Scotland has a distinct problem with alcohol, and increased consumption is what's driving increased alcohol harm," he said. "The challenge we face is to change our attitudes towards excessive consumption and the celebration of drunkenness. In our view introducing a chemical substitute for alcohol is unlikely to create the long-term and sustainable change in our culture we need to achieve."

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the moral maze the issue opens up, the Scottish Government this weekend failed to leap at the opportunity to invest in the professor's novel approach, with a spokesman explaining: "While we would need more detailed information on what is being proposed, what we are concerned about is rebalancing Scotland's relationship with alcohol to reduce the 2.25 billion cost to our public services and economy. "

So, as there is no prospect of the Scots government bottling their own synthenol anytime soon, Huey Lewis and the News will just have to sing on: "I want a new drug/one that does what it should/one that won't make me feel too bad/one that won't make me feel too good."

Additional reporting by Oliver Tree

Another molecule for the road?

A key constituent of alcohol is ethanol which inhibits brain activity in a number of ways. It manages to dampen down circuits that deal with excitement and fire up those that moderate inhibition.

Most researchers agree that a big part of alcohol's effect – most importantly, the feel-good factor – is probably mediated through brain receptors for the neurotransmitter Gaba (gamma-aminobutyric acid), which is the brain's universal signalling molecule. Gaba has different types of receptors, found in various combinations throughout the brain, and which are associated with the different effects of alcohol.

For instance, the 1 subtype seems to be responsible for that woozy, sedated feeling, while the 2 subtype calms us down, the 5 subtype is the cause of negative effects such as memory loss, motor impairment and, most dangerously, "reinforcement" that devilish desire to follow each drink with "just one more".

Professor David Nutt is developing a drug that will selectively block alcohol's undesirable effects while leaving the desirable ones alone. For example this new "synthetic alcohol" will, on a molecular level, ignore the 5 subtype and so stop us from getting clumsy, drowsy and perhaps even make it easier for us to say: "No thank you, barkeep, I've had my fill." Once the subtype responsible for aggression when mixed with alcohol has been identified, this too can be avoided in the new drug.

The basis for the new "synthetic alcohol" will be a new generation of a class of drugs called benzodiazepines, an anti-anxiety treatment which shares many of the psychoactive properties of alcohol such as relaxation but does not cause damage to the liver and heart etc.

The benefit of using these molecules as building blocks is that an antidote already exists in a rudimentary form, as the effects of benzodiazepines can be instantly reversed by drugs such as flumazenil.