Rare Alpine Bacteria Called ‘Holy Grail’ in Research on Alcohol Addition

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For many individuals who struggle with alcohol addiction, the techniques offered in cognitive behavioral therapy or other types of therapy-based treatment are useful and effective at recovering from alcohol addiction. For others, however, the cravings for alcohol are so intense that attempts at recovery are short-lived and frustrating.

Now a team of researchers at the University of Texas at Austin and the Pasteur Institute in France have discovered a rare bacteria that could lead to the development of a drug to treat alcohol addiction.

The bacteria, which grow only on rocks in the Swiss Alps, could be the key to determining how alcohol impacts certain proteins in the brain. The finding represents a big step toward the development of a drug to interrupt the interactions that occur between the brain and alcohol.

Adron Harris, professor of biology and director of the Waggoner Center for Alcohol and Addiction at UT Austin, says that the development is the first step toward a drug that could block where the proteins bind. The identification of the brain protein and documentation of its structure is a crucial first step.

Harris co-authored the paper with Rebecca Howard, a past postdoctoral fellow. The findings appear in a recent issue of the journal Nature Communications.

The paper illustrates the protein structure found in the brain that is one of the key receptors of the influence of alcohol. The proteins have long been believed to be critical in binding with alcohol, but an inability to crystallize the protein prevented its being X-rayed to verify the structure and alcohol’s effects on that structure.

The researchers were able to test the impact of alcohol on the crystallized protein and determined that some of the rewarding as well as adverse effects of alcohol were visible in their impact on the protein.

“For many of us in the alcohol field, this has been a Holy Grail, actually finding a binding site for alcohol on the brain proteins and showing it with X-ray crystallography,” Harris said.

Going forward, Harris and his lab plan to use mice to observe how changes to the key protein affect behavior when the mice consume alcohol. In the long term, he hopes to be involved in developing drugs that act on these proteins in ways that help people diminish or cease their drinking.

“So why do some people drink moderately and some excessively?” he said. “One reason lies in that the balance between the rewarding and the aversive effects, and that balance is different for different people, and it can change within an individual depending on their drinking patterns. Some of those effects are determined by the interactions of alcohol and these channels, so the hope is that we can alter the balance. Maybe we can diminish the reward or increase the aversive effects.”

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