Addiction may be in the genes - Nov 18, 2004

Addiction may be in the genes - Nov 18, 2004

Nov 18, 2004
Addiction may be in the genes

SCIENTISTS have uncovered at least half a dozen genes which could predispose a person to becoming an alcoholic or drug addict, or protect him from going down that road.

These small genetic differences, they say, could also point the way towards curing people of these addictions.
GENE THERAPY: The Chinese, as well as the Japanese, find it difficult to metabolise alcohol. Such a genetic prediposition means that there are substantially fewer alcoholics in these races. Scientists are now studying how small genetic differences could point the way towards the treatment of alcoholism.

Said an expert in the field, Professor Jay Tischfield of Rutgers University in the United States: 'Nobody's suggesting that we're not responsible for what we do. With proper support, motivation and will power, most people can stop drinking. It may just be easier for some to do so.'

The adviser to Singapore's Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology and scientific advisory board member of the Genome Institute of Singapore is one of more than 80 speakers sharing their expertise at the Human Genome Organisation (Hugo) Pacific Meeting and Asia Pacific Conference on Human Genetics which began yesterday at research centre Biopolis in Buona Vista.

More than 700 scientists from all over the world have gathered to find out the latest on the impact genomics has on the understanding of the human condition and human disease at this four-day event.

Speaking to The Straits Times, the professor, who has helped shape Singapore's scientific direction over the last 16 years, predicted that within the next decade, breakthroughs in learning about genetic differences in various groups of alcoholics - now a field in its infancy - could dictate treatment regimes.

Already, new treatments are pointing in that direction, since any one drug may work only on a fraction of people.

For example, one drug - Naltrexone - seemed to help some alcoholics by blocking off receptors in the brain which made drinking pleasureable. It failed on others whose genetic makeup differed slightly.

Close to one in 10 people in some countries is an alcoholic - a huge public health problem second only to smoking.

Some races however, including the Chinese and Japanese, have substantially fewer alcoholics because of genetic differences which make it hard for them to metabolise alcohol.

To develop effective treatments, an eight-university consortium in the US - the Collaborative Study on the Genetics of Alcoholism - of which the professor is a key member, is studying thousands of alcoholics and their families.

It is collecting blood samples and doing extensive tests on them, and looking at common genetic links in an effort to uncover the biological underpinnings of alcoholism.

So far, it has helped identify a number of genes which seem to play a role in alcoholism, and genetic variations which predispose individuals to this.

Ironically, tests have also shown that alcoholics are less impaired by constant drinking than others.

Said Prof Tischfield: 'The people who are lucky are the ones who become hopelessly drunk and throw up.

'They are less likely to become alcoholics.' -- CHANG AI-LIEN