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Researcher Hopes to Find More Accurate Alcohol-Use Test

Posted in Alcohol Abuse

Researcher Willard M. Freeman is working on a protein project that he hopes will lead to the creation of a simple, more accurate diagnostic test to measure alcohol usage than those now available, writes Chris Sholly of Lebanon Daily News.

Freeman, an assistant professor of pharmacology at Penn State College of Medicine, said the challenge in determining alcohol abuse versus substance abuse (such as cocaine, heroin, or PCP) is that alcohol is a legal substance for those over 21.

"Unlike routine testing for illicit drugs, you can’t just look for a trace of alcohol because many people enjoy a drink in a responsible manner, and alcohol is very quickly metabolized. Discriminating between excessive and responsible levels of drinking makes this a greater challenge," said Freeman, the lead investigator.

Penn State Hershey researchers have been working for two-and-a-half years with Kathleen A. Grant at the Oregon National Primate Research Center on the project and have identified a set of 17 proteins in the blood that accurately predict alcohol usage 90 percent of the time in the primates.

Freeman said the team is interested in learning how the brain works, especially when it comes to alcohol abuse and drug addiction.

"What is it that changes in the brain with substance abuse, addiction, that makes it so hard for people to stay sober or stay clean to achieve that goal," he said. Freeman said tests that are currently available, such as breathalyzers, are used for acute intoxication at the time a person is given the test. Because alcohol quickly metabolizes, the current tests are not sensitive or specific enough to serve as diagnostics, he said.

"It (the tests) won’t tell us what people did yesterday or over the past two weeks or the past three months," he said, adding that researchers have been able to measure a set of 17 proteins in monkeys’ blood for alcohol use and separate usage into three categories: no alcohol use, drinking up to two drinks per day, and drinking at least six drinks per day.
"What we want to be able to do is take someone who is in treatment and make sure they have not relapsed," he said.

Most of the proteins they looked at relate to liver, immune and nervous system functions in the body, he said. "Alcohol is this little tiny molecule, and it binds to all sorts of stuff throughout the body. It’s not like a lot of other drugs. Long periods of heavy drinking are known to have adverse impacts on the liver, the heart, on the nervous system and on immune function," he said.

Freeman said the team found that the levels of some proteins increased or decreased with as little as one or two drinks a day. "These same changes occurred with heavier levels of drinking. We also found other proteins that responded only to heavy levels of drinking. Combined, these proteins allow us to classify subjects into non-drinking, alcohol-using and alcohol-abusing groups," he said.

Freeman said the next step in the research is to do blood tests on humans. "We’re working with a few different centers around the U.S. that have inpatient treatment facilities for alcoholism," he said. "We’ll collect blood throughout their stay to see if the patients’ protein pattern reverts from an excessive drinking pattern to a pattern that’s indicative of alcohol abstinence."

The researchers also are trying to determine whether the changes measured return to normal levels with cessation of drinking, and looking for additional proteins to both increase accuracy and provide alternates if some of the initial 17 do not work in humans.

He said the goal is to create a diagnostic test for alcohol consumption that may be used in areas of public safety, such as aviation or national security, for parole conditions or for helping physicians determine if a patient may have an alcohol-abuse problem.

The findings have been published in Biological Psychiatry, the journal of the Society of Biological Psychiatry.

Others working on the project are Kent Vrana, chairman, Department of Pharmacology; Anna C. Salzberg, Penn State Hershey Cancer Institute; and Steven W. Gonzales, Biotic Micro Inc.

The research project is funded by the National Institutes of Health and the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.