The hangover cure of the future just might be a chuggable probiotic. In research out this week, scientists in China detail the creation of bacteria that can produce an enzyme meant to help the body break down alcohol faster. Alcohol-fed mice that were given the probiotic beforehand experienced less drunkenness and recovered more quickly, the study found.
Fun as the acute effects of ingesting alcohol can be, too much can be dangerous, even deadly. To protect us, the liver breaks alcohol down into less toxic byproducts using enzymes called alcohol dehydrogenases (ADH). Studies have found that there’s a particular variant of the ADH1B enzyme that seems to be especially potent at breaking down alcohol. This variant is more commonly found in Asian and Polynesian populations of people, and it might help explain why these groups tend to drink less on average.
There have been attempts to use gene therapy in mice so that they can produce the same variant, but that’s likely not an approach that’s feasible in humans anytime soon. Researchers at the Chinese Academy of Sciences and elsewhere instead went with a different strategy. They genetically engineered a version of Lactococcus lactis—a bacteria used to create dairy products like cheese that’s also commonly taken as a probiotic. Their version was packaged with the same version of the ADH gene in humans that makes the potent ADH1B variant.
The team confirmed that the bacteria produced ADH1B, stuffed it into a capsule tough enough to survive stomach acid, and calculated a dose that was most likely to consistently affect alcohol breakdown in their lab mice. Then they fed the mice the probiotic about an hour before trying to booze them up.
Compared to mice that didn’t receive the probiotic, the ADH1B-dosed mice absorbed less alcohol into their bloodstream, experienced fewer acute symptoms of drunkenness (such as not being able to stand up when placed on their backs), and returned to their normal selves faster, the researchers found. Some evidence also suggested that their livers were less injured than usual (given enough time and exposure, alcohol causes chronic liver problems like cirrhosis). The team’s findings were published Tuesday in the journal Microbiology Spectrum.
Intriguing as the findings are, they’re still limited to mice. So it will take more research to see if this can be scaled up to humans. But if this specially made probiotic does continue to show promise, it might not just work as short-term hangover prevention. The researchers note that people with certain liver conditions, including those caused by chronic alcohol use, tend to produce less native ADH, which might worsen their illness. So it’s possible this may be able to help these people, too. And the team believes that genetically modified probiotics could have other uses as well.
“The present research not only provides new strategies for treatment and prevention of the negative effects of alcohol but also paves the way for potential widespread application in the future,” they wrote.