for National Geographic News
Kudzu—an invasive vine infamous for choking much of the southern U.S.—may end up being a lifeline for alcoholics, a new rat study shows.
Native to Asia, kudzu has long been used as a treatment for addiction by practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine. Accidentally introduced to the U.S. in the late 1800s, the fast-growing plant has smothered many native plants throughout the South.
More than a decade's worth of studies have shown that extracts of kudzu can successfully reduce cravings and consumption of alcohol in both animals and humans. Now, researchers are exploring two ways of turning the plant into a medicine.
For the first time, researchers have attempted to synthesize a drug based on daidzin—a chemical component of kudzu identified as the possible source of the plant's powers.
Though kudzu extract is already available in health food stores, "it's not a good drug," said study leader Ivan Diamond, vice president of Gilead Sciences, a biopharmaceutical company that is working to develop a kudzu-based compound for humans.
That's because kudzu extract—unregulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration—is poorly absorbed by the body and its concentration varies wildly from bottle to bottle, he said.
"As a doctor, you want to know exactly how much of the active chemical gets into the blood and what it does there. Our idea is to take the best of this plant and make a controlled medicine."
A Rat Walks Into a Bar
Diamond's team successfully tested a synthetic, kudzu-like compound called CVT-10216 on "alcoholic" rats, with help from scientists. (Diamond has a financial interest in Gilead and stands to profit if a drug based on CVT-10216 can be successfully marketed.)
Like college students, the rodents were eased into alcohol consumption by drinking sugar-water cocktails. Slowly, the drinks got stiffer. A variety of tests gauged the rats' desire for alcohol.
In the most significant test, researchers gave rats access to booze only in a special cage. Once the rats showed significant interest in alcohol—for instance, choosing it over water—the researchers made them go cold turkey for several weeks.
SOURCES AND RELATED WEB SITES