In September 2012, NIDA researcher Dr. Charles O’Brien received the James B. Isaacson Award from the International Society for Biomedical Research on Alcoholism. This honor is the latest in a string of international awards Dr. O’Brien has received for a lifetime of research on the biological basis of alcoholism.
Ground-Breaking Work With Naltrexone
One of Dr. O’Brien’s major achievements was finding that naltrexone, originally developed to treat heroin addiction, was effective in treating alcoholism. In 1983, Dr. O’Brien and his colleagues first postulated that alcohol stimulates the release of endogenous opioids that produce feelings of reward. They went on to suggest that naltrexone could block these natural opioid peptides, reducing the pleasure associated with drinking alcohol and thus aiding in treatment.
In the first double-blind clinical trial, conducted at the University of Pennsylvania/Veterans Affairs Medical Center between 1985 and 1988, people with alcoholism who received naltrexone reported less heavy drinking, reduced alcohol craving, and less pleasure from alcohol than they had experienced before. In most clinical trials, patients receiving naltrexone were significantly more successful in remaining abstinent and avoiding relapse when they did drink alcohol than those receiving a placebo.
The effectiveness of naltrexone varies, according to Dr. Ken Warren, Acting Director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). The Penn group reported in 2003 that an allele of the gene for the µ-opioid receptor predicted a good response to naltrexone. This finding was replicated in 2008 by data from the NIAAA COMBINE study.
Naltrexone has become one of the most popular—if not the most popular—medications currently used to treat alcoholism. In 2010, the latest year for which data are available, 283,000 prescriptions for oral naltrexone and 16,000 prescriptions for Vivitrol, the long-acting injectable form, were written.
Naltrexone was approved by the Food and Drug Administration for the treatment of alcohol dependence after Dr. O’Brien’s findings were replicated in 1992 by researchers at Yale University.
In addition to receiving the James B. Isaacson Award, Dr. O’Brien has received the Sarnat International Award from the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences and the Jellinek Award from the Research Society on Alcoholism.