“Civilization begins with distillation,” said William Faulkner, a writer and drinker. Although our thirst for alcoholdates back to the Stone Age, nobody has figured out a good way to deal with the ensuing hangover after getting drunk.
As a chemical engineering professor and wine enthusiast, I felt I needed to find a solution. As frivolous as this project may sound, it has serious implications. Between 8 and 10 percent of emergency room visits in America are due to acute alcohol poisoning. Alcohol is the leading risk factor for premature deaths and disability among people aged 15-49 and its abuse leads to serious health problems, including cardiovascular and liver cancer. Despite these sobering facts, current treatments for alcohol overdose largely rely on the body’s own enzymes to break down this drug.
I decided to design an antidote that could help people enjoy wine or cocktails or beer without a hangover, and at the same time create a lifesaving therapy to treat intoxication and overdose victims in the ER. I chose to create capsules filled with natural enzymes usually found in liver cells to help the body process the alcohol faster.
Together with professor Cheng Ji, an expert in liver diseases from Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California, and my graduate student Duo Xu, we developed an antidote and tested it in mice.
Inspired by the body’s approach for breaking down alcohol, we chose three natural enzymes that convert alcohol into harmless molecules that are then excreted. That might sound simple, because these enzymes were not new, but the tricky part was to figure out a safe, effective way to deliver them to the liver.