Swiss Scientists Develop Alcohol Neutralizing Gel

by Denis Storey
May 16, 2024 at 12:11 PM UTC

Swiss researchers developed a protein gel that converts alcohol into harmless acetic acid in the digestive system.

Clinical relevance: Swiss researchers developed a protein gel that converts alcohol into harmless acetic acid in the digestive system.

  • The gel prevents alcohol’s intoxicating and harmful effects before it enters the bloodstream.
  • Testing on mice showed significant reductions in blood alcohol levels and liver damage.
  • The gel is made from whey proteins, iron, glucose, and gold, triggering a multi-stage enzymatic reaction.

It probably won’t earn it a spot in any 12-step program, but a team of Swiss researchers announced that they’ve developed a protein gel that helps the body synthesize alcohol by breaking it down in the digestive system.

Researchers at ETH Zurich, in Zurich, Switzerland, published a paper in the journal Nature Nanotechnology, that claims this gel –in mice, at least – “converts alcohol quickly, efficiently, and directly into harmless acetic acid before it enters the bloodstream, where it would normally develop its intoxicating and harmful effects.”

Interrupting Alcohol’s Destructive Path

Alcohol typically makes its way into the bloodstream through the mucous membrane layer of the stomach and the intestinal tract, where it does its well-documented damage:

  • In the short term, it hampers concentration and impairs one’s reaction time.
  • Over the longer term, it wreaks havoc on the liver and the gastrointestinal tract while increasing cancer risk.

In the United States alone, alcohol-related deaths have jumped more than 29 percent over the last decade, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Globally, the World Health Organization (WHO) contends that alcohol use contributes to 3 million deaths every year, accounting for 5.3 percent of fatalities.

How Does It Work

“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,” Professor Raffaele Mezzenga from the Laboratory of Food & Soft Materials at ETH Zurich, explained in a press release.

Acetaldehyde is a toxin, responsible for multiple health problems stemming from alcohol overconsumption.

In theory, consumers could take the gel orally either before or during consumption to stem rising blood alcohol levels, thereby preventing acetaldehyde from damaging the body. As opposed to so-called “hangover cures” already on the market, this gel, the researchers claim, targets the cause of intoxication rather than its symptoms.

Despite that, the Swiss scientists explain that “the gel is only effective as long as there is still alcohol in the gastrointestinal tract.” As a result, the gel can’t do much once alcohol has made it into the bloodstream. And it certainly doesn’t address the addiction that leads to overconsumption.

“It’s healthier not to drink alcohol at all,” Mezzenga added. “However, the gel could be of particular interest to people who don’t want to give up alcohol completely, but don’t want to put a strain on their bodies and aren’t actively seeking the effects of alcohol.”

Methodology

The researchers tested the gel’s efficacy by giving it to mice that had taken alcohol once, as opposed to those who’d received it for 10 days.

After 30 minutes, “the prophylactic application of the gel reduced the alcohol level in the mice by 40 percent.” Five hours later, their blood alcohol levels tumbled more than 55 percent.

The research team noticed a reduction in the accumulation of acetaldehyde, less damage to the liver, and higher overall blood values.

In the mice that had received alcohol for ten days, the researchers found not only lower alcohol leves,l” but also a lasting therapeutic effect of the gel: the mice that were given the gel daily in addition to alcohol showed significantly less weight loss, less liver damage and hence better fat metabolism in the liver as well as better blood values.”

Simple Ingredients

The researchers relied on everyday whey proteins to produce the gel. After boiling the proteins into long, thin fibrils, the researchers then added salt and water to act as a solvent that converts the fibrils into the gel. But they lacked catalysts.

“We immersed the fibrils in an iron bath, so to speak, so that they can react effectively with the alcohol and convert it into acetic acid,” ETH researcher Jiaqi Su, the first author of the study, explained.

The researchers then relied on hydrogen peroxide – generated by an upstream reaction between glucose and gold nanoparticles – to trigger the necessary reaction.

The scientists turned to gold to trigger hydrogen peroxide since gold can’t be digested, “and therefore stays effective for longer in the digestive tract.”

The researchers took all three substances – iron, glucose, and gold – and worked them into the gel, which “resulted in a multi-stage cascade of enzymatic reactions that ultimately converts alcohol into acetic acid.

Needless to say, the researchers have already applied for a patent, while conceding that regulators will demand more rounds of clinical trials.

Further Reading

Patients With Alcohol Use Disorder Co-Occurring With Depression and Anxiety Symptoms

Decrease in Alcohol Use Disorder Symptoms With Semaglutide

Screening and Referral Algorithm for Substance Use

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