The new gel breaks down alcohol in the body

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Synthesis and morphological characterization of FeSA@FibBLG. Credit: Nature Nanotechnology (2024). DOI: 10.1038/s41565-024-01657-7

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Synthesis and morphological characterization of FeSA@FibBLG. Credit: Nature Nanotechnology (2024). DOI: 10.1038/s41565-024-01657-7

Most alcohol enters the bloodstream through the lining of the stomach and intestines. The consequences of this are indisputable today: even small amounts of alcohol impair people’s ability to concentrate and react and increase the risk of accidents.

Regular heavy drinking is harmful to health: common consequences include liver disease, inflammation of the digestive tract and cancer. According to the World Health Organization, around 3 million people die each year from excessive alcohol consumption.

Scientists at ETH Zurich have now developed a protein gel that breaks down alcohol in the gastrointestinal tract. In a study recently published in the journal Nature Nanotechnologyshow that in mice the gel quickly, efficiently and directly converts alcohol to harmless acetic acid before it reaches the bloodstream, where it would normally develop its intoxicating and harmful effects.

Reducing alcohol-related health damage

“The gel shifts the breakdown of alcohol from the liver to the digestive tract. Unlike when alcohol is metabolized in the liver, no harmful acetaldehyde is produced as an intermediate,” explains Professor Raffaele Mezzenga from the Laboratory of Food & Soft Materials. at ETH Zurich. Acetaldehyde is toxic and is responsible for many health problems caused by excessive alcohol consumption.

In the future, the gel could be taken orally before or during alcohol consumption to prevent blood alcohol levels from rising and acetaldehyde damage to the body. Unlike many products available on the market, the gel fights not only the symptoms of harmful alcohol consumption, but also its causes.

However, the gel is only effective if there is still alcohol in the gastrointestinal tract. This means that it can do very little to help with alcohol poisoning once the alcohol has entered the bloodstream. Reducing alcohol consumption in general does not help either.

“It is healthier not to drink alcohol at all. However, the gel could be of particular interest to people who do not want to give up alcohol completely, but do not want to burden their body and do not actively seek out the effects of alcohol,” says Mezzenga.

Main ingredients: Whey, iron and gold

The researchers used common whey proteins to make the gel. They boiled them for several hours to form long thin fibrils. The addition of salt and water as a solvent then causes the fibrils to cross-link and form a gel. The advantage of gel over other delivery systems is that it is digested very slowly. However, the gel needs several catalysts to break down the alcohol.

The scientists used individual iron atoms as the main catalyst, which they distributed evenly over the surface of long protein fibrils. “We immersed the fibrils in an iron bath, so to speak, so that they can efficiently react with alcohol and convert it into acetic acid,” says ETH researcher Jiaqi Su, first author of the study.

A tiny amount of hydrogen peroxide is needed to trigger this reaction in the gut. These are generated by a preliminary reaction between glucose and gold nanoparticles. Gold was chosen as the catalyst for hydrogen peroxide because the precious metal is not digested and therefore remains effective longer in the digestive tract. The scientists packed all of these substances—iron, glucose, and gold—into a gel. This led to a multi-step cascade of enzymatic reactions that ultimately convert the alcohol into acetic acid.

The gel works in mice

The researchers tested the effectiveness of the new gel on mice that received alcohol only once, as well as on mice that were given alcohol regularly for ten days.

Thirty minutes after a single dose of alcohol, prophylactic application of the gel reduced alcohol levels in mice by 40%. Five hours after consuming alcohol, their blood alcohol level dropped by up to 56% compared to the control group. The harmful acetaldehyde accumulated less in these mice and they showed greatly reduced stress responses in their livers, which was reflected in better blood values.

In mice that were given alcohol for ten days, the researchers were able to demonstrate not only a lower level of alcohol, but also a lasting therapeutic effect of the gel: mice that were given the gel daily in addition to alcohol showed a significantly lower weight loss. , less liver damage and thus better metabolism of fats in the liver and also better blood values.

Other organs in the mice, such as the spleen or intestine, as well as their tissues, also showed much less damage from alcohol.

Patent pending

In an earlier study of iron administration via whey protein fibrils, researchers found that iron reacts with alcohol to form acetic acid. Because this process was too slow and too inefficient at the time, they changed the form in which they attached the iron to the protein fibrils.

“Instead of using larger nanoparticles, we opted for individual iron atoms, which can be more evenly distributed on the surface of the fibrils and therefore react more efficiently and quickly with the alcohol,” says Mezzenga.

Scientists have already applied for a patent for the gel. Although several clinical tests are still needed before it can be approved for use in humans, the researchers are confident that this move will also be successful, as they have already shown that the whey protein fibrils that make up the gel are edible.

More information:
Jiaqi Su, One-Site Iron-Anchored Amyloid Hydrogels as Catalytic Platforms for Alcohol Detoxification, Nature Nanotechnology (2024). DOI: 10.1038/s41565-024-01657-7.

Information from the diary:
Nature Nanotechnology