A rebellious chemistry nerd is pioneering products to save the world from the effects of booze, with a pill to sober you up, and a synthetic alcohol with no ill-effects.
David Nutt, from Imperial College London, is a neuropsychopharmacology professor fired from employment as a chemistry guru to the British Government in 2009 for saying that horse riding was more dangerous than taking ecstasy.
For over a decade now he has been working on drugs that mimic or alter the effects of alcohol.
He has patented over 90 compounds for his synthetic alcohol – alcosynth – two of which are now being tested for consumer use. They mimic the effects of alcohol, making the consumer feel ‘tipsy’ and talkative, but claim to have no side-effects, including organ damage, or hangovers the next day.
Nutt believes the two compounds, one of which is quite tasteless, the other somewhat bitter, could be used as substitutes to alcohol in common drinks in pubs and bars. He told The Independent it is the way the market is heading.
“People want healthier drinks,” said Nutt. “It will be there alongside the scotch and the gin, they’ll dispense the alcosynth into your cocktail and then you’ll have the pleasure without damaging your liver and your heart.
“The drinks industry knows that by 2050 alcohol will be gone.”
As it happens, synthesizing the effects of alcohol is particularly tricky, as it is quite unique in the world of narcotics.
Most drugs ‘hijack’ one molecular receptor: THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), the active component in marijuana, impersonates the body’s own endocannabinoids; psilocybin (the chemical contained in magic mushrooms) does this with serotonin; cocaine affects the production of dopamine.
Ethyl alcohol (C₂H₆O) is different, in that it interferes with a number of neurotransmitters, which is part of the reason it has such complex effects and widespread appeal. Drugs to counteract it are similarly complex, but research continues to find alternatives and treatments.
Recently, Danish pharmaceutical company Lundbeck launched Selincro – a drug that reduces the craving for alcohol.
But getting alcosynths all the way to market, anywhere, will not be easy. Nutt says licensing such drugs could take three to five years – if they are ever approved at all.
The problem is at least in part that alcohol, were it not a timeless tradition in much of the world enjoyed by billions every day, would never be approved for human consumption if invented in modern times, due to its toxicity and long-term health effects.
Even a synthetic version with few or none of the traditional after-effects would be unlikely to pass the rigorous standards required for new chemical formulas in first-world countries.
Plus there are the social advocates who would baulk at the idea of removing natural barriers and consequences.
“I think that there will be worries too that if we create a means to become drunk without negative physical effects, intoxication may simply become more normal and more acceptable. It’s the prospect of a nasty hangover that makes many of us limit our drinking,” Andrew Misell, from charity Alcohol Concern, told The Huffington Post UK.
But Nutt says Government needs to think about new tactics in its battle to combat alcohol abuse, as all attempts thus far have failed.
“We are incapable of killing alcohol’s allure,” he warns. “This is a battle we cannot win.”
Nutt’s other big project is a pill called “Chaperone” that reduces the effects of alcohol. Taken after drinking, the ‘sober-up pill’ could reduce the incidence of alcohol-related problems, including, he says, drink-driving accidents.