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Saturday, March 2, 2024

Smoking drug effective in treating drinking

A new study by UC San Francisco researchers indicates that the drug varenicline, a drug used to help stop smoking, can be used to reduce drinking.

Varenicline, commonly known by the brand name Chantix, has been FDA-approved since 2006 for helping people to stop smoking, but only recently did the researchers theorize that the drug could reduce alcohol consumption and began testing the drug on rats.

After yielding results that indicated this drug could be effective in reducing drinking, human testing was done and a significant reduction in heavy drinking was found.

Howard Fields, professor of neurology at UCSF and director of the Ernest Gallo Clinic and Research Center, and his colleagues split the participants into two groups and gave one group a placebo and the other group varenicline. He said that they started seeing results around the third week of testing.

“We didn’t know what we were going to find,” Fields said. “We thought we would see something similar to the rat reduction.”
The results confirmed the researchers’ hypothesis.

Fields believes the drug to be a great treatment for drinking. He hopes that people will read the paper he and his colleagues published and use the drug to treat heavy drinking.

One of the options patients have currently is to ask their doctors to write them a prescription of the drug to see if it helps.

Fields said that the medical industry, in general, is “pretty conservative,” meaning doctors may be reluctant to prescribe the drug at first.

Although it will probably take a larger clinical study for the drug to gain approval for drinking by the FDA, Fields believes the drug is safe and effective.

Varenicline can have some side effects, including nausea and heartburn. Fields also said that there is a black box warning of severe mood changes and suicidal thoughts, though the role of varenicline in these side effects is unclear.

However, these side effects don’t deter Fields from recommending the drug.

“It would save hundreds of lives every year if it [Varenicline] were being used widely,” Fields said.

Fields said that a good, large study might allow professionals to publish a guideline that will help physicians know to prescribe the drug to their patients.

“We’d like to see more people quit heavy drinking, but there’s not much we can do about it,” Fields said. “There are a lot of hurdles from the time a drug is discovered to be effective.”

Fields said that one of the reasons the drug might go unnoticed in the beginning is due to the fact most doctors won’t see the results just yet because they don’t have the time to read every journal.

Jennifer Mitchell, clinical project director at the Ernest Gallo Clinic and Research Center in San Francisco, also believes that the drug is effective and that patients can get the drug from their physicians.

“The FDA will reconsider [approving for treating drinking] once there is enough evidence,” Mitchell said. “Physicians can prescribe it ‘off-label’; it doesn’t mean you can’t get it for drinking.”

Mitchell said that the drug can also bring new hope to people that have tried treatment for drinking before.

Mitchell believes that people need to focus more on the “enormous societal effects” of drinking.

“People don’t realize that there are drugs out there that can help,” Mitchell said. “They need to take control of their own destinies.”
According to the UC Davis Medical Center (UCDMC), drinking can have profound effects on the body.

“Long term use [of alcohol] can cause cancer, brain damage, cirrhosis of the liver, weight gain and birth defects if drinking while pregnant,” the UCDMC website states.

ERIC C. LIPSKY can be reached at science@theaggie.org.

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