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Cancer Drugs May Be Useful in Treating Alcoholism

Discovery and functional analysis of a mutant gene (“happyhour”) in fruit flies has led researchers to suggest that certain existing cancer drugs may be effective in treating alcoholism. The mutant “happyhour” gene increases the resistance of the fruit flies to the sedative effects of alcohol. This is similar to the situation in humans where such increased resistance is thought to contribute to the development of alcohol addiction. Studies have indicated that an individual's sensitivity to alcohol intoxication acts as a predictor of future alcoholism, with a link between lower initial response and increased risk of addiction. Here, the researchers showed that the epidermal growth factor (EGF) signaling pathway regulates the fruit fly’s sensitivity to alcohol, and that the normal “happyhour” protein functions as an inhibitor of this pathway. The EGF pathway is best known for its role in cancer, and drugs designed to inhibit the EGF receptor (EGFR), including erlotinib (trade name Tarceva) and gefitinib (trade name Iressa), are FDA-approved for the treatment of non-small cell lung cancer. Here, the researchers showed that fruit flies and mice treated with erlotinib also grow more sensitive to alcohol. In addition, rats given the cancer-fighting drug spontaneously consumed less alcohol when it was freely available to them. The authors concluded that inhibitors of EGFR or components of its signaling pathway are potential pharmacotherapies for alcohol addiction. This work was published in the May 21 online edition of Cell. [Press release] [Cell abstract]