Genetically mutated worms, unable
to become intoxicated by alcohol, have been created by neuroscientists. The researchers
say this could lead to the development of a drug to treat symptoms of alcohol
inserted a human gene variant into the worm C. elegans that alters 'alcohol
targets' — molecules to which
alcohol binds. They found that when these worms were placed
in alcohol, their behaviour did not change and they were able to move around
and reproduce as normal.
'This is the first example of
altering a human alcohol target to prevent intoxication in an animal', said Dr Jon Pierce-Shimomura, assistant professor of neuroscience at the University of
Texas at Austin, who led the study.
The modified alcohol
targets disrupted a cellular process governed by the BK channel, meaning that
the biological mechanisms causing drunken behaviour were not set in motion.
The BK channel is
also responsible for various other functions including regulating the activity
of neurons, blood vessels and the respiratory tract. But the team were able to alter the BK
channel without disrupting these other functions. 'We got pretty
lucky and found a way to make the channel insensitive to alcohol without
affecting its normal function', said Dr Pierce-Shimomura.
When given alcohol, C. elegans displays a
number of features allowing the scientists to distinguish
between sobriety and inebriation. They stop laying eggs, causing a build-up
within their bodies that can be counted, and they also begin to crawl slower
and wriggle less.
However, C. elegans are not an
ideal model for studying the different effects of alcohol
dependence such as cravings or tolerance.
The team are now testing the effects if this mutation in mice, to examine
whether the alcohol target affects these symptoms.
'Our findings provide exciting
evidence that future pharmaceuticals might aim at this portion of the alcohol
target to prevent problems in alcohol abuse disorders', said Dr
Pierce-Shimomura. 'However, it remains to be seen which aspects of these
disorders would benefit'.
The researchers have also said a 'James Bond'
drug could someday be developed, 'which would enable a spy to drink his
opponent under the table, without getting drunk himself': a seemingly more glamorous purpose
for the potential drug, even though the alcohol would still affect the liver
and other organs.