ETH Zurich invents a gel that reduces the harmful effects of alcohol
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ETH Zurich invents a gel that reduces the harmful effects of alcohol

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MedicineETH Zurich invents a gel that reduces the harmful effects of alcohol

The product causes the breakdown of alcohol in the digestive tract and liver, significantly reducing blood alcohol levels.

The gel should be taken before or during drinking alcohol.

The gel should be taken before or during drinking alcohol.

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ETH researchers have developed a whey protein fibril-based gel that uses individual iron atoms to convert alcohol in the gut into harmless acetic acid before it enters the bloodstream. They showed that in mice, this gel reduced blood alcohol levels by up to 50% and protected the body from damage.

Although further testing is needed before the gel can be used in humans, the researchers are confident they will be successful and have already applied for a patent on the gel.

Most alcohol enters the bloodstream through the mucous membrane of the stomach and intestines. As a result, even small amounts of alcohol impair the ability to concentrate and react, increasing the risk of accidents. Regular consumption of large amounts is harmful to health: common consequences include liver disease, inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract and cancer. According to WHO, about 3 million people die every year due to excessive alcohol consumption.

ETH researchers have developed a protein gel that breaks down alcohol in the gastrointestinal tract. In a study published in the journal Nature Nanotechnology, they show that in mice, the gel quickly, efficiently and directly converts alcohol into harmless acetic acid before it enters the bloodstream, where it normally exerts its intoxicating and harmful effects.

Take before or during drinking alcohol

“The gel transfers the breakdown of alcohol from the liver into the digestive tract. Unlike alcohol metabolism in the liver, harmful acetaldehyde is not formed as an intermediate product,” explains Professor Raffaele Mezzenga from the Laboratory of Food and 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 drinking to help prevent acetaldehyde from raising blood alcohol levels and damaging the body. Unlike many products on the market, the gel fights not only the symptoms of harmful alcohol use, but also its causes.

However, the gel is only effective as long as the alcohol remains in the gastrointestinal tract. This means that it can do little to combat alcohol poisoning once alcohol has entered the bloodstream. It also doesn’t help reduce alcohol consumption overall. “It’s healthier not to drink alcohol at all. However, the gel may be especially interesting for people who don’t want to give up alcohol completely, but don’t want to put a strain on their body and aren’t actively seeking the effects of alcohol, Mezzenga says.

Iron, gold and whey

To produce the gel, the researchers used regular whey proteins. They boiled them for several hours to form long, thin fibrils. The addition of salt and water as a solvent causes the fibrils to crosslink and form a gel. The advantage of the gel over other delivery systems is that it is digested very slowly. But the gel needs several catalysts to break down alcohol.

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

Small amounts of hydrogen peroxide are needed to trigger this reaction in the intestines. They are formed as a result of a previous reaction between glucose and gold nanoparticles. Gold was chosen as a catalyst for hydrogen peroxide because the precious metal is not digestible and therefore remains effective longer in the digestive tract. The researchers packaged all these substances into a gel. This led to a multi-step cascade of enzymatic reactions that ultimately convert the alcohol into acetic acid.

The gel works on mice

The researchers tested the effectiveness of the new gel on mice that were given alcohol once, as well as on mice that drank alcohol regularly for ten days. Thirty minutes after administering a single dose of alcohol, the gel reduced alcohol levels in mice by 40%. Five hours after drinking, their blood alcohol levels had dropped by 56% compared to the control group. These mice accumulated less harmful acetaldehyde and had a significant reduction in stress responses in the liver, which was reflected in improved blood counts.

In mice given alcohol for ten days, the researchers were able to demonstrate not only lower alcohol levels, but also a long-lasting therapeutic effect of the gel: mice given the gel daily in addition to alcohol showed significantly less weight loss, less weight loss. liver damage and therefore better fat metabolism in the liver, as well as better blood counts. Other organs of the mice, such as the spleen or intestines, and their tissues also suffered much less damage from the alcohol.

Patent applied for

In an earlier study of iron delivery through whey protein fibrils, researchers found that iron reacted with alcohol to form acetic acid. At the time, this process was too slow and too inefficient, so they changed the form in which the iron was attached to the protein fibrils. “Instead of using larger nanoparticles, we chose individual iron atoms, which can be distributed more evenly on the surface of the fibrils and therefore react more efficiently and quickly with the alcohol,” Mezzenga explains.

The researchers have already filed a patent for the gel. Although several clinical trials still need to be conducted before it can be approved for use in humans, the researchers are confident that this step will also be successful since they have already shown that the whey protein fibrils contained in the gel are edible.

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