This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
Fun fact: alcohol abuse leads to hundreds of thousands of deaths every year. It can be a lot of fun to drink, of course, but it is – as someone condescending will definitely have told you at some point in your life – a poison. A toxic liquid that single-handedly keeps Berocca afloat via the hangovers of millions of people, and can also lead to much more serious afflictions than a sore head and an intolerance of loud noises, such as liver cirrhosis, cancer and heart disease.
Lucky, then, that hero of psychonauts and former advisor to the British government, Professor David Nutt, has spent the last decade working on a synthetic booze that promises to do away with all that bad stuff. Nutt is confident that Alcosynth – which admittedly sounds a bit like a new romantic covers band – will have replaced alcohol entirely by 2050, but there are some tough obstacles in its way, from powerful alcohol companies to the absurd Psychoactive Substances Act introduced in the UK earlier this year.
I gave Professor Nutt a call to talk about how Alcosynth will work, and to find out when it might be available to people like you and me.
VICE: When did you start working on alcosynth?
Professor David Nutt: Back in 2005, when it was part of the government's Foresight Programme. Twice a year it picks a topic, and the topic that year was brain science and drugs. All of my professional life I have worked to reduce the problems of alcohol. Medicine is awash with alcohol problems, like seizures and withdrawal, so from the first day I was a doctor I've been dealing with alcohol problems in casualty. I've been trying to think of ways to reduce alcohol harm and withdrawal.
This foresight programme was very clever, because you do a lot of abstract brainstorming. We suddenly thought, 'Well, you can never get rid of the harms of alcohol as it's a toxic substance and poisonous – maybe we can replace it.' So for the last ten years we've looked for replacements. The science has moved on a lot; we can mimic the good effects with other pharmacological agents.
And you've found your final version?
We've got two used on human studies and more patented as back-ups. I mean, alcohol has a horrible taste – no one drinks raw alcohol. We're going to mask [the flavour] the same way you mask the taste of alcohol; some will go into non-alcoholic beers and tonics easily, others into sophisticated cocktails. We know they will work in drinks people like to drink. Cocktails will be the route to market.
Many cocktails were invented during Prohibition because, in the speakeasies, the alcohol was hooch, which was horrible. So they had to do intensive taste-masking, so cocktails got interesting and exotic to hide the taste. It's the same idea; you have to mask the taste of alcosynth.
And it'll get rid of the hangover?
Well, hangovers aren't the big issues, but they are the obvious manifestation of alcohol toxicity. Some people get indigestion as well, but getting rid of the hangover is not something we targeted. We could find an anti-hangover drug, but it encourages people to drink more. Hangovers are a deterrent and a model of toxicity. It's not the purpose of alcosynth, but it is proof of its non-toxicity.
And there's a max-out on the effects?
It's based on a dose response curve. The more of a drug you take, the more effect you get. With alcohol, if you keep taking more and more you eventually die, due to the effect on the brain's receptors being maximal and toxic – and alcohol works on many receptors. So to reduce harm you focus on one or two receptors and minimise interactions with other receptors. You also design molecules that'll never produce a maximal effect.
You can even design molecules that'll have no effect. For example, heroin: too much and you die. But we have an antagonist called Naloxone that we give to people so if they are dying it'll wake them up. You can find drugs in between called partial-agonists. There is a widely-used one called Buprenorphine, which is designed to be a safer heroin. So that's an established pharmacological principle. We're doing the same with alcosynth; a partial agonist that can never produce a maximal effect and could never kill you.
Why hasn't this been done before?
It's too radical. To a scientist, it's obvious. The drinks industry actually employs lots of sciences; the field of biochemistry was started in the 1850s by the drinks companies understanding why different yeast produces different beer. Every drinks company has thousands of scientists. They say to me, "We want in on this. You're right – by 2050 no one will drink alcohol." But the bosses are happy to retire in five years and leave it as someone else's problem. The scientists know it must happen.
In the tobacco industry, Marlboro has said they'd move as far as they can from burning tobacco to safer alternatives. The drinks industry knows they'll be forced absolutely to go down the same route by scientific pressure and public demand. But they'll be as slow as possible, as selling alcohol is the easiest way of making money.
Would alcosynth come into conflict with the Psychoactive Substances Act, as it'll presumably have some sort of effect on the brain?
That's a very interesting question. The Home Office has been asked that question and said if it breaches the act then it will. They don't know. There's never been a prosecution under the act as no one knows what it means. What it does is puts off investors, as it creates uncertainty.
It's an absurd piece of legislation. I hope it'll disappear. What's the point of a law never enforced? It was just a political gesture for the last election. Legal highs kill five people a year; it's not worth a law to save five when alcohol kills 25,000. The law was brought in to make it easier for the police to close down head shops. People hate them as they don't like the people that go in them. But those head shops are still open as they actually weren't making their money from selling drugs.
It was also designed to make stuff like nitrous harder to sell at festivals. The drinks industry were of course behind it, as it was cutting down alcohol sales. It's harder to sell nitrous on the streets now, but it's just to make policing easier. It's shaken-up investors as no one knows. The Daily Mail could make people panic about alcosynth.
Britain is a waste of space. We're going to go over to proper countries that have a rational approach.
And in terms of long-term effects it could be revolutionary.
Of course. It's non-toxic and of pharmaceutical safety. This is a hundred times safer than alcohol.
When could it become reality?
Give me £5 million and I'll sell it by next Christmas. We're going to have a launch for investors in Germany. It's just another example of a British invention going overseas due to ridiculous laws.
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