Derivative of Kudzu Plant Could Help Treat Alcoholism

According to a recent study, an ingredient derived from the kudzu plant—a vine known for its out-of-control growth in the Southeastern states—could help treat alcoholism.

Lindsey Anderson of USA Today writes that kudzu contains a substance called daidzin, which could make drinking alcohol an unpleasant experience, thus helping addicts quit.

Researchers Ivan Diamond—professor emeritus of neurology, neuroscience, and cellular and molecular pharmacology at the University of California San Francisco—and Ting-Kai Li—former director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism—developed a synthetic form of daidzin, which they say shows promise in laboratory tests.

The synthetic daidzin inhibits an enzyme called aldehyde dehydrogenase 2 (ALDH-2), which promotes the buildup of an organic compound called acetaldehyde. With more acetaldehyde in the body, a person may feel flushed or ill when consuming alcohol.
Daidzin later decreases dopamine, which is thought to drive the craving to drink.

For the study, which appears in November's issue of Alcoholism: Clinical & Environmental Research, the researchers bred rats for moderate to high levels of drinking and exposed them to various drinking scenarios. Their synthetic version of daidzin suppressed drinking in the rats and helped prevent the binge drinking that usually follows after five days without alcohol.

Using kudzu to treat alcoholism isn’t a new concept—according to the researchers, traditional Chinese folk medicine has used extracts and flowers from the vine to treat alcoholism for about 1,000 years.

Two Harvard University researchers, Wing Ming Keung and Bert Vallee, confirmed kudzu's effects on the ALDH-2 enzyme in a 1997 study. Based on Keung and Vallee's findings, Diamond and Li tried to design a compound that interacts more efficiently with the enzyme, and they came up with the synthetic version of daidzin.

The results seem promising, says Raye Litten, co-leader of the medications development team at the National Institute for Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA).

Litten says there are currently four brand-name medications approved by the Food and Drug Administration for treating alcohol dependence: Antabuse, ReVia, Campral, and Vivitrol. These drugs decrease drinking by inhibiting the brain receptors that make drinking pleasurable, causing unpleasant reactions when alcohol is consumed.

If trials with humans show that synthetic daidzin reduces drinking, clinicians will have a larger menu of drugs to choose from, Litten says.

How soon human tests begin will depend on how quickly the company receives approval from the Food and Drug Administration, he adds.
While the results are interesting, the research is still in its early stages, says Nathan Kaiser, a spokesman for the biopharmaceutical company Gilead. The company decided to continue the study after it acquired CV Therapeutics, which initiated the study, Kaiser said in an e-mail.

Posted on November 17th, 2009

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