How gene-editing could cure your hangover

Cheers to that.
Cheers to that.
Image: REUTERS/Samrang Pring
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Gene editing promises to transform everything from agriculture to cancer treatments, but its most immediate impact on your life may soon come in the form of something much humbler: A probiotic preventive for hangovers.

The idea was hatched by Zach Abbott, a young microbiologist who apparently knew a thing or two about hangovers. Among other things, Abbott knew that many of the grisly effects of a hangover are caused by acetaldehyde, a toxin produced when the body breaks down alcohol (which is itself toxic). We do have enzymes that can detoxify acetaldehyde, but we don’t have enough of them to handle a heavy load. (And, as many of us have discovered, they seem to become less effective as we get older.) It takes many hours to eliminate all the acetaldehyde, and by then, the damage is done.

Abbott’s idea: What if there was some bacteria that could detoxify the acetaldehyde for us? There wasn’t, so he made one. He took Bacillus subtilis, a common bacteria naturally found in the human gut and also used to ferment beans in Japanese culture, and used gene-editing to give it the ability to produce enzymes that break down acetaldehyde—lots of those enzymes.

How it works: Before a night of heavy drinking, you chug your shot of ZBiotic. The engineered Bacillus subtilis passes your stomach intact, sets up shop in your gut, and starts churning out enzymes. Through the evening, as the drinks go down and the acetaldehyde arrives in your gut, it’s quickly detoxified. It never builds up enough to do you harm. You awake in the morning rarin’ to go. (Note: The ZBiotic can’t do much about the other poor decisions you may have made during the night.)

Does it work? Too early to say. Abbott has tested it on himself (during his birthday celebration, no less) and believes it helped a lot. Now ZBiotics has to do clinical trials to prove it (to the FDA and, well, themselves). Abbott knows the engineered bacteria successfully break down acetaldehyde in a test tube, but who knows what happens in the complex environment of a living person?

We’ll all know in a couple of years. Bonus if it makes a good mixer with tequila.