Alcoholism Drugs Gain Popularity

Richard Pops, CEO of Alkermes, Inc., shows a human brain model at his company in Cambridge, Mass., Wednesday, Aug. 3, 2005. Cambridge-based Alkermes Inc. expects to hear back from federal regulators by Sept. 30 on its application to begin marketing its new drug, Vivitrex, to doctors specializing in addiction medicine. (AP Photo/Chitose Suzuki)
Above all else, John Bauhs credits a drug for helping him stop drinking, a story line some alcoholics, doctors and drug companies hope will become more common as new treatment options emerge.

Bauhs tried practically everything he could think of to stop during 25 years of drinking but he couldn't stay sober until a year ago, when he began taking naltrexone, a drug that can block the brain chemicals that make alcoholics feel good after a drink, while also undergoing counseling.

"After being on the drug only three days, the urge to drink was completely gone," said Bauhs, a 41-year-old personal chef from Germantown, Md. "The conscious thought not to drink doesn't even affect me anymore."

Recovering alcoholics like Bauhs are winning allies among pharmaceutical companies and many doctors who want to include drugs alongside the old standbys of counseling and 12-step programs as standard treatments for alcohol abuse, despite initial reluctance by some health insurers to cover the newest drugs.

The medications have yet to become big sellers, but that could change. The first new such drug to win U.S. approval in nearly a decade hit the market in January, the third federally approved alcohol abuse drug. A fourth could be approved by year's end, with others in the pipeline.

Advances in studies on addiction and the brain also are driving a boom in research toward drugs to correct neurotransmitter imbalances among people prone to alcoholism, which has behavioral and biological components. The government's National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism is sponsoring more than 50 clinical trials involving drugs to treat alcoholism, compared with just six such trials a dozen years ago.

Among alcoholics who are treated, the vast majority aren't prescribed drugs. Experts say that's because most patients and few doctors other than addiction specialists are familiar with existing drugs, and most doctors consider alcoholism a largely behavioral problem best treated by counseling and programs like Alcoholics Anonymous. But traditional approaches through inpatient and outpatient programs have brought only mixed success, driving the push for new treatment options.