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New Pill Developed to Curb Alcoholism

Alcoholism is a growing problem worldwide. The World Health Organization reports that alcohol causes almost two million deaths every year and results in physical disability or shortened life span for at least 58 million others. Now a drug -- already used to help smokers cut back -- is showing promise as a way to reduce alcohol consumption. VOA's Melinda Smith has the story.

The pill's name is varenicline and it is already on the market in the U.S. and Canada as a remedy for smoking under the brand name Chantix. Its European name is Champix.

No research on the drug as a treatment for alcoholism has been done yet on humans. But one study on rats shows varenicline cuts desire for alcohol by 50 percent. The rats do not exhibit excessive drinking even after they are no longer given the drug.

That reduced desire for alcohol could be a key element in any future testing on humans. Often alcoholics tend to go back to drinking after they quit taking any of the current drugs on the market.

The study's author is Dr. Selena Bartlett of the University of California San Francisco. She says medication options are few for treating alcoholism. "There are very few effective medicines to treat alcoholism. Our hope is that this drug will provide a new and improved method for treating alcoholism."

Varenicline has been available for about a year as a treatment to curb nicotine addiction. Dr. Bartlett thinks it will help drinkers too. ”There is a huge link in smoking and drinking."

Eighty-five percent of alcoholics are also believed to smoke, and researchers are hoping patients would then be able to take one drug for both conditions.

The World Health Organization says most of the increase in global alcohol consumption is happening in developing countries. The WHO says alcoholism is occurring in places where drinking has not been a traditional part of the culture and there are few treatment programs available.

Dr. Bartlett believes successful treatment with varenicline may be possible because it targets the center of the brain, which releases dopamine -- the 'feel good' neurotransmitter that is temporarily triggered by drugs, cigarettes or alcohol. Varenicline shuts down the release of dopamine, which then shuts off the desire.

While the drug shows promise, researchers caution that its release to the public is still a long way off. Even then, they say, curing alcoholism will take more than just swallowing a pill.