Stem cells slashed alcoholism rates in rats. Can it do the same for humans?

Stem cells are undifferentiated cells with the ability to transform, as required, into many different types of cell in the body. They have previously been responsible for a number of major medical breakthroughs, doing everything from restoring sensation to people with paralysis to enabling almost blind people to read again. Now a new study from researchers at the University of Chile has another application for them: Helping fight alcoholism.

In clinical trials, the researchers found that one dose of human mesenchymal stem cells injected intravenously into rats significantly reduced the amount of alcohol they would willingly imbibe. Within 48 hours of treatment, the rats — which were previously downing the size-adjusted equivalent of a bottle of vodka per day — reduced their alcohol intake by up to 90 percent. The effects of one dose lasted up to five weeks.

“Alcohol use disorders constitute a leading cause of morbidity and premature mortality worldwide,” Dr. Fernando Ezquer, one of the researchers on the project, told Digital Trends. “Several studies in humans and rodents have shown that chronic alcohol consumption leads to an increase in inflammatory cytokines, both in the periphery and the brain, and this alcohol-induced neuroinflammation remains up-regulated for long periods even after discontinuation of alcohol consumption. This phenomenon perpetuates alcohol consumption and is also associated with a marked increase in the risk of relapse in abstinent patients. Drugs currently available for alcoholics patients have very low effectiveness and are not focused in reducing neuroinflammation.”

Cell therapy based on mesenchymal stem cells is increasingly emerging as a clinical option for diseases in which this type of neuroinflammation occurs. Ezquer said that, in the case of this study, the stem cells work as a combination of an anti-inflammatory and antioxidant medication which could greatly reduce alcohol intake.

“We have proved efficacy and safety using rats [selectively] bred as alcohol consumers,” Ezquer continued. “This is a very robust animal model of alcoholism since these rats consume the equivalent in humans of over one bottle of vodka every day. We believe that in humans presenting an alcohol use disorder, this type of cell therapy may reasonably be used in conjunction with a cognitive-behavioral intervention. For other diseases, over 1,200 patients have received this type of cells.”

The researchers are currently harvesting small nano-particles which are shed by mesenchymal stem cells. These could then be administered as an intranasal spray. The team is also on the lookout for clinical partners interested in transferring these studies to humans.

A paper describing the work was recently published in the journal Scientific Reports.