If Yunfeng Lu has his way, in the future you may be able to drink yourself under the table without any worries. For Lu and his team at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), are working on a substance that will breakdown the alcohol in the bloodstream before it reaches the liver, thereby saving the liver from the effects of overconsumption of alcohol such as cirrhosis of the liver. Alcoholism is a problem all over the world and in India, 50 per cent of those suffering from liver diseases develop the ailment because of alcohol consumption.
Excessive consumption of alcohol is known to damage a number of organs, but the liver is generally the most affected. Globally, about one in five excessive drinkers die of liver related complications. According to the Global Burden of Diseases 2010 report published by the World Heath Organisation (WHO) last December, excessive alcohol use accounts for four per cent of the total global burden of disease and in South Asia it is listed as one of the top killers.
Currently there is no effective antidote to alcoholic intoxication. But now Lu and his colleagues from the US and China, have reported in the journal Nature Nanotechnology yesterday the creation of a tiny cocktail of enzymes ((chemical compounds that work as catalysts to aid biochemical processes) which will decrease the amount of alcohol reaching the liver. The finding may offer a way to prevent liver injury arising from overconsumption of alcohol.
When a person consumes alcohol, it is absorbed directly in the blood stream. As almost all the blood flow from the digestive tract reaches the liver, most of the alcohol ends in the liver, which tries to break it down so that the body can be rid of the poison. Alcohol detoxification is multi-step process requiring concerted actions of different enzymes. Lu and his colleagues from other US and Chinese universities have mimicked Nature to help the liver out.
The scientists synthesised a nanocomplex containing two enzymes, alcohol oxidase and catalase, which play a critical role in metabolising alcohol in the liver. The enzyme alcohol oxidase converts alcohol into two chemical by-products — hydrogen peroxide and acetaldehyde — both of which are toxic to the body. Subsequently, catalase breaks down hydrogen peroxide into two harmless products: water and oxygen.
The scientists who packed the enzymes in a nano-sized polymer shell also showed that the compound is effective taken both before and after consuming alcohol.
“The enzyme-based approach we have demonstrated works by directly eliminating the ethanol (alcohol) in the bloodstream,” says Lu. In mice, which were fed with alcohol-laced food, the alcohol levels in the blood came down 31 per cent and 36 per cent, respectively, one and a half hour and three hours after they were administered an injection containing the nanoenzyme complex.
“This is certainly a pathbreaking study. They have not only devised an innovative technique to create a nanocomplex containing two or more enzymes, but also demonstrated how this can be used for managing a serious health problem,” says Radha K. Dhiman, professor of hepatology at the Post Graduate Institute of Medical Science and Research at Chandigarh.
Scientists packed the enzymes alcohol oxidase and catalase in a nano-sized polymer shell. The compound can be taken both before and after consuming alcohol
“The technique is useful not just for alcohol intoxication but may prove effective in curtailing toxicity associated with several medicines,” Dhiman adds. Besides, he says, the scientists have shown that reduction in the alcohol concentration is dose dependent. In other words, it may be possible to achieve more efficient or complete elimination of alcohol from the bloodstream by increasing the dosage.
However, Lu says that they still have a long way to go before that. The tiny cocktail of enzymes that they have created at present doesn’t take care of the other toxic compound, acetaldehyde. The accumulation of acetaldehyde is responsible for many of the symptoms of alcohol intoxication. But there is a paucity of knowledge about the enzyme that acts on acetaldehyde. “As a result, the technique we described here is somewhat limited,” Lu told KnowHow.
As the next step, the UCLA scientist says his team plans to develop an enzyme that decomposes acetaldehyde and incorporate it into the nanoenzyme complex so that the complete digestion of alcohol is possible.
According to Lu, scientists elsewhere have been working on several antidotes for alcohol intoxication, but these have not yet been proven helpful in warding off all harmful effects. For instance, he says, one of the most promising antidotes, dihydromyricetin — a molecule derived from a Chinese herb — temporarily stops alcohol from accessing its receptors in the brain. It may keep drinkers in a sober state, but it cannot eliminate alcohol from the bloodstream, which may cause liver and other health problems.
So a time may come when you can just pop a pill to stop having a hangover after a binge drinking session at the New Year’s Eve party. But will you be able to drink and drive? The jury’s still out on that.