Edible gel prevents and treats alcohol intoxication in mice

A transmission electron micrograph of beta-lactoglobulin, the main whey protein in cow’s milk, which was used to make the gel

SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY

A gel based on a milk protein drastically reduced the level of alcohol in the blood of intoxicated mice. With further research, it could one day be used to tackle the harmful effects of excessive alcohol consumption in people, or even prevent drunkenness in the first place.

There are some treatments for severe intoxication, such as injecting certain enzymes, but they are often invasive, says Raffaele Mezzenga at ETH Zurich in Switzerland.

To provide an alternative approach, Mezzenga and his colleagues developed an ingestible gel that can both prevent intoxication and treat its negative effects.

The team combined nanofibres made of a whey protein called beta-lactoglobulin, a byproduct of cheese-making, with iron particles. This created a gel that mimics the structure of an enzyme that causes the body to break down alcohol into acetic acid, which plays an important role in the metabolism of fat and carbohydrates, rather than the more toxic chemical acetaldehyde, which can trigger negative health outcomes.

A group of mice were offered unlimited access to ethanol, the type of alcohol used in drinks, for 10 days. When the researchers then gave the mice the gel, their blood alcohol levels fell by just over 55 per cent after 4 hours. This is a much quicker reduction than was observed in another group of intoxicated mice that weren’t given the gel, says Mezzenga. Acetaldehyde levels also drastically declined in the first group after these mice ate the gel.

In another part of the experiment, the team found that mice that both consumed alcohol every day for 10 days and ate the gel over the same period had much healthier organs than those that didn’t eat it at all. Their organs were “nearly indistinguishable from mice who didn’t drink alcohol”, says Mezzenga.

“If you ingested this gel before you drink, most of the alcohol you drink is converted into acetic acid,” he says. “That means alcohol doesn’t cross into the bloodstream and you don’t suffer from the side effects.”

The team now hopes to test the gel’s efficacy in people. “I think people who have alcohol addiction will greatly benefit from this as a therapeutic treatment,” says Mezzenga. It could also help people without such an addiction to drink alcohol without becoming intoxicated, he says.

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