Herb offers hope for alcoholics: Hard-drinking hamsters go on the wagon with Chinese medicine

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The Independent Online
A HERBAL medicine from China may offer a safe and effective way of treating alcohol abuse, following the discovery that an extract from the plant dissuades dipsomaniac hamsters from drinking.

Researchers at the Harvard Medical School in Boston have found that the Syrian Golden hamster makes a perfect laboratory lush. When offered the choice between pure water or a stiff drink, the hamsters naturally prefer the alcohol.

According to professor Bert Vallee, who directs anti-alcoholism research at Harvard, each Syrian Golden hampster happily gets through the equivalent of a case of wine, relative to its body- weight, without showing signs of inebriation.

But when given extracts from the plant Radix puerariae, the hampsters went on the waggon.

The plant has long been used in traditional Chinese medicine to treat human alcoholics. Professor Vallee believes that two chemicals present in the plant, daidzin and daidzein, suppress the 'appetite' for alcohol. This may make them a safer form of treatment for human alcoholics than existing drugs, such as Antabuse, which interfere with the way the body metabolises alcohol and can lead to a build-up of toxins.

One might have thought that the hamsters' diet of 'Purina Rodent Laboratory Chow 5001' - detailed in today's Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences - would have been enough to drive any animal to drink, but not so. Professor Vallee and his colleagues have been searching for some years to find 'spontaneous drinkers' whom they could study in the laboratory. Laboratory rats have to be bred through 20 to 30 generations before they will turn to drink; only the Syrian Golden hamsters offer a method of 'predictive validity' when it comes to assessing anti-alcohol agents.

The hamsters' preference is all the more remarkable considering that they are offered simply a 15 per cent mixture of pure ethanol with water.

Radix puerariae grows extensively across the southern United States where it is known as kudzu. The active material is present in its roots and flowers, but the Harvard researchers synthesised their own versions of the compounds for injection into their hamsters.

Professor Vallee believes that the compounds react with receptor systems within the body to suppress the appetite for alcohol. He believes that they will begin clinical trials in humans - depending on the speed with which chemists can formulate them into suitable drugs.

(Photograph omitted)