Is Nalmefene the 'Magic Bullet' for Alcoholism?

By Paul Gaita 10/27/14

After spending decades in testing limbo, nalmefene may finally prove to be a viable option to curb heavy alcohol consumption.

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A series of recent tests in Europe may finally open the doors in the U.S. to using nalmefene as a viable means to curb heavy or compulsive drinking.

Typical medical treatments for alcoholism include naltrexone and nalmefene, two “opiate antagonists” that interfere with neurotransmitter systems in the brain to interrupt pleasurable sensations associated with alcohol. While naltrexone was approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 1995, nalmefene—also known as Selincro—has remained in the test phase of development.

The most recent of these studies, sponsored by the Danish pharmaceutical Lundbeck A/S, which manufactures nalmefene, administered the drug to 604 individuals as part of a double blind, placebo-controlled trial conducted over a six-month period. Those individuals who received nalmefene reduced the number of heavy drinking days—days in which men consumed 7.5 units of alcohol, or three to four pints of beer, and women consumed five units, or roughly a half bottle of wine—from 19 to eight per month, with an overall reduction of alcohol consumption by two-thirds.

The placebo group also saw diminished daily drinking by nearly half of previous amounts. Additional studies produced similar results, prompting study leader Wim van der Brink of the Amsterdam Institute of Addiction Research to proclaim nalmefene as a viable alternative to traditional means of curbing alcoholism like 12-step programs.

“[Abstinence] is heroic and dangerous, and it doesn’t do anything,” he said. “[Nalmefene] brings some of the responsibility back to the person.” Nalmefene is already available in Europe, and a U.S. study began in August to further determine whether the drug can be considered for stateside sales.

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.