April 22, 2019

Here’s to no more hangovers…time to call time on alcohol?

Fran Willhelm, Senior Business Development Manager at Ayming, explores the development of a chemical that mimics the effects of alcohol, but without its harmful effects. 

Pleasantly merry, you re-fill your glass once more to toast the new dawn, all the happier for knowing that you won’t regret it. The date – when you can experience the highs of drinking without the after-effects of alcohol – is not set, but the UK inventors of synthetic alcohol believe they will get regulatory approval within four years. 

Known as ‘alcosynth’, the secret chemical has been designed to work on the brain in a similar way to alcohol but without the negative effects it has on the heart and liver.

Having tested more than 90 chemicals over 10 years, David Nutt, the leading neuropsychopharmacologist and former drugs advisor to the UK government, announced his breakthrough in September 2016.

The straight-talking Imperial College professor was famously sacked by ministers in 2009 for mixing public health messages, stating the data showed ecstasy and LSD were less dangerous than alcohol. Few now question Nutt’s claim that the long-term benefits to people and society of his benign elixir – Nutt’s start-up is called Alcarelle –would be enormous. The downsides of alcohol are all too clear.

Not least for UK Plc.  Up to 17m working days are lost each year because of alcohol-related sickness, according to the Institute of Alcohol Studies (IAS). The cost to employers is estimated at £1.7bn.

A report by PwC in 2014 suggested hangovers were the number-one reason for calling in sick. The average adult in Britain spends 24 days a year hung over, or – even more sobering – a total of five years during their lifetime! Probably for reasons associated with the works party season, the 12th of December was identified as the peak (or should that be the rock bottom) hung-over point in the year.

How it works

Understanding how Alcarelle or alcosynth would work requires a quick lesson in the biology of a hangover.

As alcohol breaks down in the liver, a toxin called acetaldehyde is created. This is what causes muscle and headache, and vomiting. Fortunately, another substance produced in our liver, called glutathione, soon disposes of the poison. But drink quickly, and the well of glutathione runs dry, so the toxic acetaldehyde builds up in our system.

Alcarelle would avoid this problem as its metabolism would not produce acetaldehyde even as it mimics the effects of alcohol in our brain. So no hangover, calories, cirrhosis, brain damage, addiction, or hopefully, any contribution to the 15-plus kinds of cancer linked to alcohol. Researchers say alcohol-related illnesses accounted for more than 8,690 deaths in the UK in 2014, and some 88,000 in the US in the same year.

Whatever about the demand, the need for alcosynth is huge.

Coming to market

Professor Nutt has patented around 90 different ‘alcosynth’ compounds, two of which are now being tested for consumer use through his start-up company ‘Alcarelle.’ It needs to raise £7m in funding to bring one of these compounds to market. (If successful, the company says some of its profits will be earmarked for helping people and families damaged by alcohol.)

The potential health risks have yet to be thoroughly explored. Notwithstanding huge strides in brain science over the last two decades, sceptics point to previous failures with non-addictive substitutes (including heroin, launched as an alternative to morphine).

Nutt and his team – comprised of eminent scientists and two businessmen with experience of leading innovative tech firms – predict it will take four years to cross all regulatory hurdles.

DACOA in the US already has. (And the company has a second worldwide patent for a ‘binge behaviour regulator’.) Earlier this year it launched a substitute alcoholic beverage, called Pace, to mixed reviews about the taste, effects and price. Pace retails at $15 per 50ml bottle.

Is the tide turning?

Acarelle’s website says it’s not intended to replace alcoholic beverage altogether, but to enable the drinks industry to offer new options for health-conscious consumers. However, Professor Nutt is reported as predicting that synthetic alcohol will replace ‘traditional’ alcohol in the next 20-30 years – in the same way that e-cigarettes have begun replacing tobacco.

International brewers may have seen the tide turning. Sales of no-alcohol beers soared 60% last year in the UK. Drinking among young people is at its lowest level on record, and falling. After years of sometimes conflicting advice about the benefits of drinking in moderation, public health guidelines have been tightened. The latest global study, published in the Lancet this summer, declared there was no ‘safe’ level of alcohol consumption.

Other sectors would also feel the effects of a mass shift to no/low-alcohol drinks.

For hard-pressed public hospitals, it will be a tonic. An estimated 1.1m admissions to UK hospitals in 2-15/16 were associated with alcohol consumption. Alcohol-related harms cost the NHS around £3.5bn annually.

However, the taxman could end up with a worse headache. Alcohol duty raises more than £10bn a year, though its share of the tax take has halved, since 1979, to 1.6%.

But overall, there should be an alcosynth dividend. Estimates for the total cost of alcohol to the British economy range from £21bn to £55bn per year.

While other sectors – such as hospitality and entertainment – might take a hit, productivity and employers in all industries stand to benefit from less absent, more abstinent workers.

Investors will have to pour large sums into R&D, production and advertising if Alcarell and its inevitable competitors are to achieve mass consumption. But the biggest barriers may yet prove to be cultural rather than biological.

Here’s wishing Professor Nutt and his collaborators good health, and good luck.