Strange Brew 

Will there ever be a cure for alcoholism? And why is wine tycoon Ernest Gallo spending millions trying to find out?

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And for the most part, it wasn't. Back then, alcohol and addiction research was the territory of psychiatrists and social scientists who focused on behavioral treatments. When the Gallo Center opened, it had only six employees and an annual budget of $400,000 (today it has 160 employees and a budget over $30 million).

Still, the center made do, and in 1988 Diamond announced an important discovery: He had found strong evidence for genetic differences between cells of alcoholics and cells of nonalcoholics.

According to news accounts at the time, Diamond and his team took the cells from identified alcoholics and those of nondrinkers and reproduced them over several generations without exposing them to alcohol at first. When they did feed them booze, the cell descendants from nondrinkers and the ones from alcoholics reacted differently, even though neither had been exposed to alcohol for generations. The alcoholic cells clearly adapted to booze more quickly and at lower doses than the cells of teetotalers.

While the findings strongly suggested a genetic component to alcoholism, they also raised the possibility that science could potentially identify genetically predisposed people. Still, Diamond told reporters, still more research needed to be done before they could pick a drunk out of DNA lineup.

By the mid-'90s, Diamond and other researchers were getting closer and closer to naming specific genes involved in alcoholism. And their studies were repeatedly confirming that the alcoholic brain was different than that of a nondrinker. Alcoholics and addicts, for instance, appear to have a deficiency in a neurotransmitter known as dopamine that is associated with the sensation of pleasure. Thus, a shot of whiskey could be like a shot of dopamine. (Because of this sort of brain chemistry research, the Food and Drug Administration approved a new drug treatment for alcoholism for the first time in nearly fifty years. Unlike antabuse, the new drug, naltrexone, didn't make drinkers sick. It curbed the alcoholic craving for a drink by blocking the abnormal surge in endorphins experienced by the chronic drinker.)

By 1997, the Gallo Center had grown dramatically from where it started. It now had more than forty employees and a budget of over $3 million. But Diamond considered that dollar amount a drop in the barrel for what he really needed to engineer -- a major scientific breakthrough.

He needed a little help from an old friend in the wine business.DDuring the final year of his term as governor, Pete Wilson was chatting on the telephone with his old patron Ernest Gallo. Not everybody gets a one-on-one with the governor of the largest state in the union every day, but Ernest Gallo wasn't everybody. The Gallo family had donated thousands to Wilson when he was a US senator and, more recently, had kicked in $22,000 for his failed presidential bid.

The conversation somehow turned to the heady topic of alcoholism research. As the story goes, the vintner told Wilson about the Gallo Center and his desire to turn its modest accomplishments into revolutionary ones. He told the governor that the center's director, Ivan Diamond, felt that his alcohol research needed a massive influx of resources to make real progress in a short time, like the Manhattan Project, (referring to the World War II effort that produced the atom bomb, not the cocktail made of whiskey and sweet vermouth).

After talking to Gallo, according to his old press aide, Sean Walsh, Wilson stayed up until two a.m. reading about the societal impacts of alcoholism. Apparently impressed, Wilson put a line item in his final budget funding the Gallo Center -- even though it had never gone through a competitive process. A few months later, the governor appeared at the Gallo Center -- then located at San Francisco General Hospital -- and presented Diamond with a $16.5 million check. That was only the first year's installment. The legislature had overwhelmingly voted to give the clinic a total of $143 million over five years (through 2003) from the state's general fund -- an unheard-of amount for such research from a state government. (The feds have traditionally funded such scientific research.) At the press conference, Diamond lauded Wilson for making it possible for the Gallo Center to do in five years what otherwise might take fifteen to twenty years to accomplish: that is, to identify four to six agents that could be developed into treatments for alcoholism.

By the time the state's five-year funding cycle runs out, the Gallo Center expects to have added a total of 100 employees to its payroll. In the first year after the funding kicked in (1999), the center spent nearly $8 million on new equipment alone -- more than twice what it spent on its entire program two years earlier.

Sean Walsh, who still handles press questions for his old boss, defends Pete Wilson's financial support for the Gallo Center, saying the $143 million earmarked for research into alcoholism is "a pittance" when compared to addiction-related costs to the health and criminal justice systems. "He [Gov. Wilson] thought it was a terrific thing and well worth the money," Walsh says.

Nor is Wilson the only politician who's uncorked the public piggy bank for the Gallo Center. Last year, US Senators Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein helped secure $8.5 million for the Gallo Clinic "to study the effects of alcohol on the brain" from an unlikely source: the Pentagon. The military's funding of the Gallo program won a prominent mention in the Center Against Government Waste's 2001 Congressional Pig Book. It also drew sneers from Senator John McCain (R-Arizona), who asked, "What in the world does the Gallo research center have to do with anything that is regarded as defense?"


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