CHICAGO (AP) -- A drug widely used outside the United States to help keep alcoholics from drinking shows promise in its first American test, researchers report.
Acamprosate worked best in people who aimed to avoid alcohol entirely, rather than just cutting down, said researcher Barbara
Mason of the University of Miami School of Medicine.
"It's not magic," she said. "It's not something a spouse can put in the coffee of the alcoholic in the morning and the problem will go away. It has to go hand-in-hand with having abstinence as your treatment goal."
Mason presented the study's results Monday at the annual meeting of the American Psychiatric Association.
Acamprosate is now sold in Europe, South America, Asia and elsewhere, and more than a million people have taken it, Mason said. It is manufactured by Lipha s.a. of Lyon, France, which paid for the new study.
Dr. Anita Goodman, executive vice president of Lipha's clinical development group in the United States, said the company plans to get the drug on the American market "as soon as we can." That step, which would require federal approval, will take at least a year, she said Monday.
Doctors already have some drugs available to maintain abstinence. One, disulfiram, makes a user feel nauseous and otherwise sick if he or she also uses alcohol. Another medication,
naltrexone, acts on brain circuitry to reduce the desire to drink.
Acamprosate acts on different brain circuitry.
Mason's six-month study involved 601 alcoholics who were treated at 21 medical centers. They were randomly assigned to take either acamprosate tablets or a placebo twice a day, starting two to 10 days after their last bout of excessive drinking.
They also received psychological treatment, education about effects of alcohol, strategies to help them cut down and quit drinking and exercises to identify what led them to drink.
Only 41 percent of the participants, or 241 people, began the study with a goal of complete abstinence, Mason said.
Of those people, those on the placebo stayed away from alcohol on 58 percent of the days they were studied. Those taking 2 grams a
day of acamprosate didn't drink on 70 percent of the days they were studied; for people on 3 grams, the figure was 73 percent.
In all, the members of the placebo group cut their weekly intake of drinks by 36 percent; the two other groups each reduced it by 40
Raye Litten, a program officer for medications development at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, said
acamprosate has a modest effect on drinking that's about the same as naltrexone.
"It's another way to treat alcoholism," he said. "The more weapons you have to treat, the better off you'll be, because what works for one person may not work for another."