October 15, 2019

Alcoholism isn’t easily explained, but it can have devastating effects for sufferers and their friends and families.

New research conducted at Oregon National Primate Research Center (ONPRC) at Oregon Health & Science University has identified a gene which could be a new target for developing medication to prevent and treat this psychological disease.

In the study, researchers modified the levels of a protein in mice which is encoded by a single gene, GPR39—a zinc-binding receptor previously associated with depression. The prevalence rates of co-occurring mood and alcohol use disorders are high, and people with alcohol use disorder are 3.7 times more likely to have major depression than those who do not abuse alcohol.

Using a commercially available substance which mimics the activity of the GPR39 protein, the researchers found targeting this gene dramatically reduced alcohol consumption in the mice. The team also discovered a link between alcohol and how it modulates the levels of activity of this particular gene. Researchers found when they increased the levels of GPR39 protein in mice, alcohol consumption dropped by almost 50 percent without affecting the total amount of fluid consumed or overall well-being of the mice. 

 “The study highlights the importance of using cross-species approaches to identify and test relevant drugs for the treatment of alcohol use disorder,” said senior author Rita Cervera-Juanes, PhD, a research assistant professor in the divisions of Neuroscience and Genetics at ONPRC.

To determine whether the same mechanism affects people, the researchers are now examining postmortem tissue samples from the brains of people who suffered from alcoholism.

By testing the effect of this substance in reducing ethanol consumption in mice—in addition to its previously reported link in reducing depression-like symptoms—the findings may point the way toward developing a drug which both prevents and treats chronic alcoholism and mood disorders in people.

“We are finding novel targets for which there are drugs already available, and they can be repurposed to treat other ailments,” Cervera-Juanes said. “For alcoholism, this is huge because there are currently only a handful of FDA-approved drugs.”

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