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Alcohol-resistant worms may hold key for human sobriety

Published time: July 17, 2014 03:55
AFP Photo / Frank Perry

AFP Photo / Frank Perry

If drinking as much alcohol as you want without getting drunk sounds like a dream, listen up: Scientists have created earthworms capable of doing just that.

If researchers can successfully recreate this development in mice and, eventually, humans, they believe it would be possible to help treat those with alcohol addiction and one scientist even suggested the research could be used to boost espionage efforts.

These alcohol-resistant worms were created after scientists implanted various kinds of altered human alcohol targets, which bind alcohol to the brain and cause intoxication, into the animals. Researchers tested numerous kinds of these molecules to pinpoint the exact one that would allow the animals to fight off drunkenness but still continue operating normally.

“This is the first example of altering a human alcohol target to prevent intoxication in an animal,” lead researcher Jon Pierce-Shimomura of the University of Texas at Austin said to the college’s Natural Sciences website. The full study was published in the Journal of Neuroscience on Tuesday.

Ensuring that the neural channel that regulates blood vessels, the urinary tract, respiration and other functions the BK channel kept working properly was especially important.

"We tried a brute force approach, testing hundreds of mutations to empirically determine which one would allow the BK channel to function normally [while still] preventing alcohol from activating it,” Pierce-Shimomura added to The Verge.

"It is remarkable that [a] mutation … could have such a dramatic specific effect on ethanol modulation while minimally affecting basal BK channel function," the study reads.

The effect was visible in the worms, too. Ingesting alcohol typically causes worms to stop wriggling around as much and slow down their movements considerably, but after scientists genetically modified them, the worms simply went about their lives as they normally would.

Moving forward, Pierce-Shimomura and his team will test their findings out in mice, which will allow them to more effectively determine if this development could help lead to drugs that would bring alcohol addiction under control. The scientist even suggested that a “James Bond” drug could be developed, which would let a spy outlast an opponent during a night of heavy drinking without getting intoxicated himself.

“Our findings provide exciting evidence that future pharmaceuticals might aim at this portion of the alcohol target to prevent problems in alcohol abuse disorders,” Pierce-Shimomura told the College of Natural Sciences. “However, it remains to be seen which aspects of these disorders would benefit.”

Still, those raising their glasses in happiness at the news may want to avoid binge-drinking for a while. Any human application for this research is unlikely to hit any time soon, if ever.

"As promising as the findings sound, it will likely be many years before they will be tested on humans,” wrote Becky Ferreria at Vice. “And as Motherboard's Michael Byrne warned a few weeks back, ’off-switches’ for addictions may be tantalizing, but they won't necessarily be cure-alls. For now, we'll just have to be satisfied with the fact that the great enterprise of science has gifted the world a bunch of mutant worms that can't get drunk.”

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