New drug raises hopes in hard-drinking Japan

by Tatsuya Akasaka

Kyodo

A new drug to treat alcoholism has improved the chances of addicts quitting drinking, the director of Japan’s largest alcoholism treatment center says.

Regtect, which went on sale in May, is sold by Nippon Shinyaku Co., which licensed it from Merck Sante of France.

Susumu Higuchi, director of the National Hospital Kurihama Alcoholism Center, is among those doctors with high hopes for it. Regtect helps by improving the chemical balance in the brain to suppress a patient’s craving, whereas conventional drugs discourage drinking by causing unpleasant symptoms, such as palpitations, nausea and headaches, after alcohol consumption.

Regtect is the first alcohol-dependence drug to be launched in alcohol-happy Japan in 30 years. It was sold in 24 other countries before the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry got around to clearing it.

Alcohol dependence is a mental disease that renders sufferers unable to control their drinking. Attempts to cure it via abstinence can cause shakiness, insomnia, sweating, nausea, and auditory and visual hallucinations. While there are an estimated 800,000 alcoholics in Japan, only around 40,000 a year get treatment.

The disease can cause serious health problems, including liver, pancreas and brain damage. It also poses a social threat, as it is viewed as a contributing factor to suicide and domestic violence.

Treating the dependence is a four-step process, Higuchi said.

First, it is essential to make the patient realize alcohol dependence is a disease. Next, the patient is kept off alcohol and treated for related health problems and withdrawal symptoms.

After the physical and mental conditions improve, the patient receives “psychosocial treatment” in two stages, including mental therapy and participation in group activity. To prevent relapses, drug therapy is also applied, although psychosocial therapy is the main treatment.

A clinical test of Regtect involving about 320 patients in Japan found that after 24 weeks of use, nearly half achieved abstinence, compared with 36 percent in the placebo group. Its side effects, including diarrhea, are seen as manageable.

“From now on, we will accumulate clinical data and establish a more effective and safer dosage,” Higuchi said.

While drugs like Regtect may raise hopes for a cure for alcoholism, the greatest challenge for patients may be the social stigma associated with it.

“Japan is a pro-alcohol society difficult for nondrinkers to get along in,” Tomomi Imanari, who heads a nonprofit organization called ASK, said. “However, if people become alcohol-dependent, they are accused of being weak-willed and ostracized from society.”

ASK is engaging in initiatives to prevent problems related to alcohol and habit-forming drugs.

“The biggest problem is that (alcoholism) is not recognized as a disease,” Imanari said.