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ZÜRICH, Switzerland — Drinkers often hear that they should eat before enjoying alcohol to lessen the chances of getting drunk. Now, an innovative new gel may be able to coat a drinker’s stomach, preventing them from getting drunk, feeling sick, or worse.

In 2016 alone, harmful alcohol use claimed nearly three million lives and led to a staggering 132.6 million years of healthy life lost to disability. Despite the immense toll alcohol takes on public health, truly effective therapies for alcohol intoxication and its associated harms have remained elusive – until now.

In a study published in Nature Nanotechnology, an international team of researchers has developed a novel artificial enzyme in gel form that shows remarkable promise as an orally administered antidote for alcohol intoxication. This product that is sure to excite drinkers around the globe harnesses cutting-edge nanotechnology to tackle one of the world’s most pervasive health challenges.

To understand the significance of this discovery, let’s first delve into how alcohol affects the body. When we consume alcohol, our liver bears the brunt of the detoxification process. It employs a series of enzymes to break down ethanol, the intoxicating component of alcoholic beverages, into acetaldehyde and then into acetic acid. However, this natural defense can be overwhelmed if alcohol intake exceeds the liver’s processing capacity, leading to a build-up of toxic by-products and the all-too-familiar symptoms of intoxication.

Previous attempts to bolster the body’s alcohol-metabolizing capabilities have primarily focused on harnessing the power of natural enzymes. While these approaches have shown some promise, they face significant hurdles. Natural enzymes are costly, fragile, and challenging to store, making them impractical for widespread use. Moreover, their insufficient activity can lead to the accumulation of acetaldehyde, a toxic intermediate that can wreak havoc on the liver and other organs.

Enter the biomimetic nanozyme – a marvel of molecular engineering that takes its cues from nature’s own design principles. The researchers began by seeking a suitable carrier for their artificial enzyme. They turned to amyloid fibrils derived from β-lactoglobulin, a protein abundant in milk that readily forms long, stable filaments. These protein nanofibers provided an ideal scaffold for anchoring iron atoms, the catalytic heart of the nanozyme.

Hungover man with alcohol
In 2016 alone, harmful alcohol use claimed nearly three million lives and led to a staggering 132.6 million years of healthy life lost to disability.

By carefully controlling the synthesis conditions, the team succeeded in dispersing individual iron atoms throughout the fibril network, creating a highly efficient catalytic platform. Remarkably, the resulting nanozyme closely mimicked the structure and function of horseradish peroxidase, a natural enzyme renowned for its oxidative prowess.

“The gel shifts the breakdown of alcohol from the liver to the digestive tract. In contrast to when alcohol is metabolized in the liver, no harmful acetaldehyde is produced as an intermediate product,” explains Professor Raffaele Mezzenga from the Laboratory of Food & Soft Materials at ETH Zurich in a media release.

But the true test lay in the nanozyme’s ability to break down alcohol. In a series of elegant experiments, the researchers demonstrated that their creation could not only catalyze the oxidation of ethanol but also exhibited a striking preference for producing acetic acid over the more toxic acetaldehyde. This selectivity is a crucial advantage over existing therapies, as it minimizes the risk of acetaldehyde accumulation and its associated harms.

Encouraged by these promising results, the team took their work a step further. They incorporated their nanozyme into a hydrogel, a jelly-like substance that could be orally administered. This hydrogel formulation was designed to withstand the harsh environment of the gastrointestinal tract, allowing the nanozyme to carry out its detoxifying duties over an extended period.

The moment of truth came when the researchers tested their nanozyme hydrogel in mice subjected to acute alcohol intoxication. The results were nothing short of remarkable. Mice treated with the nanozyme showed a significant reduction in blood alcohol levels, with a decrease of over 55 percent just five hours after consuming alcohol. Crucially, this rapid detoxification occurred without any additional build-up of acetaldehyde, underscoring the nanozyme’s safety and efficacy.

But the benefits didn’t stop there. Further investigations revealed that the nanozyme hydrogel also exerted a protective effect on the liver, mitigating the organ damage and inflammation often associated with alcohol consumption. It even showed promise in alleviating the gut disturbances and microbial imbalances that can accompany chronic alcohol use.

The implications of this groundbreaking work are far-reaching. By providing a safe, effective, and orally administered antidote for alcohol intoxication, the biomimetic nanozyme hydrogel could revolutionize the way we approach alcohol-related harms. It opens up the possibility of a future where the damaging effects of alcohol could be largely preventable, reducing the global burden of disease and improving countless lives.

Of course, more work is still necessary before this promising therapy can make its way from the lab bench to the clinic. Further studies will be needed to assess its long-term safety and efficacy in humans and to optimize its formulation and dosing. But the foundational science is sound, and the potential benefits are immense.

In a world where alcohol consumption shows no signs of slowing, the development of effective antidotes and preventive measures is more crucial than ever. By harnessing the power of nanotechnology and taking inspiration from nature’s own catalytic wonders, scientists have opened up a new frontier in the fight against alcohol’s toxic toll.

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