Ever been drunk? So drunk you couldn't drive/speak without slurring/be trusted with a cell phone? Sure you have. Ever wished you could just sober up on the spot, without resorting to such humiliating (not to mention mythbusted) techniques as chugging coffee or splashing icewater on your face? Of course. But you can't. No such sober pill exists. But one day — and soon — it might.
A team of researchers led by UCLA bimolecular engineer Yunfeng Lu and USC biochemist Cheng Ji have packaged enzymes inside a nontoxic, nanoscale polymer shell that mimic the body's natural alcohol-processing activities. The "biomimetic enzyme nanocomplexes," have been shown to quickly and dramatically reduce blood alcohol levels in intoxicated mice, and show promise as "antidotes and preventive measures for alcohol intoxication."
To demonstrate the efficacy of the delivery method, the researchers injected the mice with capsules containing two enzymes. One of them, oxidase, produces hydrogen peroxide, so it has to work in concert with another enzyme that decomposes this potentially harmful by-product. The researchers report that the mice receiving the enzyme treatment saw their blood alcohol content fall quickly and significantly compared with controls.
The advance could open the door to a new class of enzyme drugs, says Lu. Down the road, for example, he envisions an alcohol prophylactic or antidote that could be taken orally. Since alcohol metabolism naturally occurs in the liver, it would "almost be like having millions of liver cell units inside your stomach or in your intestine, helping you to digest alcohol," he says.
We're wondering what sort of social, behavioral and biological consequences might come with the introduction of an "alcohol antidote" that allows you to sober up at an accelerated rate. On one hand, it could help you get a better night's sleep; crawling into bed with a blood alcohol content in the range of 0.06–0.08 tends to exact a serious toll on your body during the second half of your normal sleep period, during what's called a "rebound effect." A sober pill, taken shortly before bedtime, could reduce the recommended 4-hour time window between your last drink and hitting the hay.
But it's also worth considering what effect such an alcohol antiserum might have on people's behavior. If sobriety were a pill and a short wait away, how might it affect your drinking habits? The potential for abuse is glaringly obvious.
The nanocapsule technique has applications beyond alcohol prophylactics. Mimicking the function of the body's organelles (cellular sub-compartments that contain many functionally complementary enzymes) has been a longstanding challenge for synthetic biologists; but Lu and Ji appear to have found an effective solution. We're interested in seeing where this work heads next.