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Discovering drug treatments for alcohol addiction

Pharmacy students led by Angela Sung, BHS’18, PharmD’19, are developing new drugs without side effects to help those who are dependent on alcohol. Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

Common treatments for alcohol addiction range from 12-step programs advocating abstinence to use of medications including disulfiram, sold as Antabuse, which produces an acute sensitivity to drinking alcohol but is associated with painful side effects.

Northeastern pharmacy students led by Angela Sung are developing new drugs without those side effects to help those who are dependent on alcohol, including the 15.1 million adults in the U.S. alone, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health. Their most promising drug candidate, named GAT358, has been shown to reduce alcohol craving by 25 percent when tested in rats.

“Alcohol addiction can cause depression, anxiety, hypertension, and increased risk of cancer,” says Sung, BHS’18, PharmD’19. “The fallout is hard not just for the person drinking but also for family and friends.”

Sung and her colleagues have been modifying existing compounds to dampen the sensation of pleasure in the brain’s reward system that reinforces the drinking of alcohol. They have been concentrating on a protein that sits on many cells in the brain and body called the cannibinoid CB1 receptor. Chemicals in alcohol and drugs such as marijuana bind to and activate CB1, producing the high. Drugs that block the receptor have been shown to curb the craving for the high but, as with disulfiram, too often the blocking is imprecise and negative side effects result.

GAT358 avoids many of those side effects. “Think of the receptor as a knob,” says Sung. “GAT358 doesn’t turn the knob off but rather tweaks it.”
Discovering GAT358 has opened doors for Sung. She became fascinated with the research while on co-op with Ganeshsingh Thakur, associate professor in the Bouvé College of Health Sciences, who is also the project’s faculty advisor.

“Originally I thought I would want to work in a hospital after graduation,” says Sung. “I didn’t know about this field. Now I am eager to pursue the exciting area of drug discovery and development.”