Inventing a product that allows drinkers to enjoy all the benefits of alcohol and none of its drawbacks was a goal of scientist David Nutt for over a decade. He developed a synthetic alcohol substitute he calls Alcarelle, which could eliminate the downsides of alcohol consumption, from hangovers to alcohol-related cancers and even physical addiction.
Alcoholic beverages can relax people, make them more social and talkative. Unfortunately, maintaining a pleasant buzz without getting “wasted” is tricky. Taking one too many drinks, and you might find yourself doing something you’ll regret while under the influence. Since alcohol is an important part of many cultures, Nutt and his team are ambitious in bringing the safer substitute Alcarelle, also referred to as “alcosynth”, to the masses.
“The industry knows alcohol is a toxic substance,” Nutt said for The Guardian. “If it were discovered today, it would be illegal as a foodstuff. The safe limit of alcohol, if you apply food standards criteria, would be one glass of wine a year.”
Back in 1983, Nutt discovered an alcohol “antidote”. He was studying the effects of alcohol on the GABA system. Simply put, alcohol’s primary effect on the brain is stimulating the GABA receptor. When stimulated, these receptors “calm down” the brain by firing off fewer neurons. According to Nutt, now he knows exactly which brain receptors can be stimulated to induce tipsiness without the unwanted adverse effects.
“We know where in the brain alcohol has its ‘good’ effects and ‘bad’ effects, and what particular receptors mediate that – GABA, glutamate and other ones, such as serotonin and dopamine,” Nutt told The Guardian. “The effects of alcohol are complicated but…you can target the parts of the brain you want to target.”
Nutt has discovered that there are 15 different GABA receptor subtypes in multiple brain regions, and that “alcohol is very promiscuous. It will bind to them all.” At the moment he is working on giving his synthetic alcohol molecule a “peak effect”. It would prevent a drinker from ever crossing the line from buzzed to wasted. He wants to create other effects too, so one could choose between having a party drink or a business-lunch beverage.
“And of course we don’t want hangovers. We have to show it doesn’t have the bad effects of alcohol,” Nutt said.
Alcarelle will probably be regulated as a food additive or an ingredient, meaning standard food regulations rather than clinical guidelines will apply. Managing director of Nutt’s startup Alcarelle, David Orren, recently told the Irish Examiner that it might be able to wrap up all the necessary safety testing and regulatory requirements within five years. The ultimate goal is to manufacture Alcarelle and then sell it to beverage companies so they can add it to their drinks.
According to global drinks analyst Jonny Forsyth, there’s a solid chance the alcohol industry could embrace the product rather than see it as new competition. Similar situations were observed when the car industry invested in electric cars and the tobacco industry in vapour cigarettes.
“The industry is increasingly investing in alcohol alternatives,” said Forsyth. “If the science is right, and if it’s easy to mask the taste, I think it’s got a great chance.”
When our liver metabolises alcohol, it produces the carcinogen acetaldehyde. Although Alcarelle can spare us from debilitating hangovers, heart disease, and various cancers, it can not solve all the problems related to excessive alcohol consumption. The possibility of being able to feel drunk all the time with no consequences is not great since it can produce mental addiction.
Furthermore, the fact that Alcarelle isn’t “natural” could be repulsive to many. Alcarelle company had this concern too, so they started a project to find these molecules in nature as well.
Although it may seem Nutt is a prohibitionist, the truth is likely opposite. He enjoys a “very small” single malt before bed, and even co-owns a bar with his daughter. One day, he hopes to add Alcarelle to the menu at his bar.
“We ignore the harms of alcohol because we enjoy it. What I’m trying to do is provide something to enjoy that is much less harmful. That’s the ambition,” said Nutt
Learn about the science behind the synthetic alcohol in the video below:
Professor David Nutt discusses alcohol and the most harmful drugs in the video below:
By Andreja Gregoric, MSc