Alcarelle is a chemical substance that Professor David Nutt created and keeps in a liter bottle on a shelf in his office.
In a lab below earth, he and his group have been working on it for two years.
If permitted by authorities, he thinks Alcarelle may provide a means for individuals to enjoy alcohol’s positive aspects without its drawbacks.
Nutt contends that Alcarelle would enable people to enjoy the benefits of drinking, such as relaxation and lowered inhibitions, without the health hazards, loss of control, or nasty hangovers that come with ethanol, the main component in most alcoholic beverages.
“Alcohol is my favourite drug, and it has the huge benefit of helping us socialise as humans, but we’ve been brainwashed by the drinks industry into thinking that it’s not bad for us,” says 71-year-old Nutt, professor of neuropsychopharmacology at Imperial College London, who was the UK Government’s drugs adviser under New Labour but was sacked in 2009 by home secretary Alan Johnson for claiming that alcohol is more dangerous than ecstasy or LSD.
In a section in his briefing paper headed “Assessing harm”, he referred back to a paper published in the Lancet journal in 2007 in which he and colleagues evaluated the harm caused by different drugs. Alcohol was ranked as more harmful than all class C and most class B drugs.
Nutt said at the time: “I believe that the challenge of dealing with the harms of alcohol is probably the biggest challenge that we have in relation to drug harms today.” In his letter to Nutt, the then home secretary said: “It is important that the government’s messages on drugs are clear and as an adviser you do nothing to undermine public understanding of [those messages].”
There was a petition for Nutt’s reinstatement, he received widespread support, and in 2022 UK Government research showed that alcohol misuse is now the biggest killer of working-age adults in England.
“On the very first day at medical school, I was confronted with the complications of alcohol,” Nutt says, “and I’ve spent my working life as a psychiatrist and addiction expert trying to help work out how to stop people drinking, stop people having withdrawal, stop people craving alcohol – but it’s very difficult to do, because alcohol is a very clever thing, a very promiscuous drug.” In pharmacological terms, “promiscuous” means a drug that binds to many different molecular targets or receptors in the body, and so tends to have a wide range of effects and possibly adverse reactions. As well as ethanol, other “promiscuous”, or “dirty”, drugs include Tramadol, and antipsychotic medication Chlorpromazine.
So, after decades of working to better understand how alcohol works on the brain – “I’ve been thinking about how to combat alcohol since 1983 when I was a PhD student” – Nutt and his team have created an alternative to ethanol that is yet to be tested or approved by regulators in the US or Europe, but Nutt hopes will be in the next five years.
To get to this point, he has been developing and testing compounds that target extremely specific brain receptors to get a desired response. “Alcohol mimics a chemical called GABA which is produced in the brain,” says Nutt. “We now know there are 15 subtypes of GABA receptor present in lots of different parts of the brain and that alcohol will bind to all of them and cause lots of side-effects.
“With our synthetic alcohol, we’ve been targeting the receptors in the parts of the brain which regulate how you feel and how you interact and how you socialise.” By selecting the “useful” GABA receptors only, Nutt claims he can stimulate the receptors that cause tipsiness, without stimulating the receptors that induce negative effects, including headaches, memory impairment, aggression, longer term liver problems and more.
“You can produce a whole range of effects like [that from] alcohol by manipulating this system in the brain,” says Nutt. “In some experiments, the effect is indistinguishable from alcohol. We want to keep the pleasure, but not the pain, essentially. You don’t get the physiological changes that ethanol does from Alcarelle, I’ve tried and tested it myself.”
In a way, this sounds too good to be true. Getting drunk without any downsides? Then, why wouldn’t you get drunk all day, every day? The wonderful buzz of booze without it being bad for you? It feels like something out of an adult version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. “It’s not quite like that,” says Nutt. “We’ve developed the compound so that no matter how much Alcarelle you have in a drink, you won’t get wasted, just tipsy. It’s like having two or so glasses of wine. It’s also a small molecule so you don’t need much of it to feel the effect when it’s mixed into a drink, and it clears from your body within hours and it doesn’t metabolise in the liver like alcohol. Hence, the lack of side-effects.”
Yet, if we’re honest about it, the nice feeling you might get after two glasses of wine doesn’t always cut it. There are times in life when someone might want to have the kind of fun and abandonment of self that getting more drunk can bring. “I’m not suggesting we do away with alcohol in place of this, or that it’s a replacement,” says Nutt, who is no puritan about drinking, and owns a bar with his daughter in Ealing, London. “It’s about giving people a choice other than abstinence and alcohol. Currently, people only have two choices; to drink or not to drink, but this could give people the sociability they want from alcohol without them having to drink.
“If someone wants to lose their mind and forget what they did, then they can drink lots of alcohol. But there will be people who start off with a couple of Alcarelle cocktails and break that tension you first get at a bar or a party, and that’ll be enough for some people. Others might alternate; then they might have a glass of wine after that, or a spirit at the end of the evening. Maybe someone wants to enjoy a social event, but also has a job interview the next morning. But as things are now, there’s no choice like that.”
Nobody except for Nutt and his team have tried Alcarelle yet, because regulators won’t allow humans to ingest a new molecule to simply see what happens. For now, as a stop-gap, Nutt’s company – named GABA Labs – has started selling Sentia, a drink made from plant extracts that induces that two-glasses-of-wine fuzzy feeling using botanicals.
Yet, synthetic alcohol – Nutt’s real dream – looks like it could become reality. In 2018, Nutt and his business partner, David Orren, got seed funding to allow them to attempt to raise £20m to make Alcarelle something that can be consumed by the general public. The plan is to offer the ingredient to the drinks industry, for different brands to develop their own range of drinks.
Is the drinks industry not threatened by a new alternative to alcohol? “No,” says Nutt, “because the industry knows alcohol is a toxic substance.” “If it were discovered today, it would be illegal as a foodstuff.”
If Alcarelle takes off, presumably there could be lots of money in it for Nutt and Orren? Yet, more than this being a business venture, it’s clear this is something Nutt feels passionately about in terms of the nation’s health, if not the world. “The savings in terms of the health service, policing, and then people’s general mental health and physical wellbeing – normalising a synthetic alcohol could make a difference to the huge, huge issue alcohol poses in society.”
Just before we sat down to talk, Nutt was giving a lecture to a group of doctors on the molecule he’s created. After all, alcohol is associated with 2.8 million deaths each year worldwide, and Nutt’s work has placed him at the coalface of that damage.
“If we put the same effort into solving the alcohol problem as we put into making Covid vaccines, this would be on the market within a year,” says Nutt. “Most people enjoy alcohol and I don’t want to stop that, I just want to offer people something less harmful. They should have a choice between drinking alcohol – an addictive, toxic substance – and having a rubbish time at a social event. After all, we’ve finally got the science to make it happen. Why wouldn’t we?”