Drink and be merry: Chinese team may have found way to make beer beneficial for health

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 18 June, 2015, 8:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 18 June, 2015, 8:00am

In what may come as a relief for weekend binge drinkers, Chinese scientists have discovered a gene they claim can make alcohol help rather than harm people’s livers, among other potential health benefits.

During experiments on lab rats, the team took a gene commonly found in humans and animals and used it to turn alcohol into glycogen rather than fat in the rodents’ livers. Until now, the functions of the gene were largely unknown, they said.

The energy derived from booze can be stored as either fat or glycogen, but the build-up of fat in this crucial organ - which is exaggerated when people imbibe - can lead to cancer and other serious diseases.

“Our findings shed new light on the issue of drinking. It can lead to the development of new medicines that can reduce the negative health effects of alcohol,” said professor Chen Yan, lead scientist of the study. 

The findings were published in the latest issue of the Journal of Lipid Research.

“We are on the verge of shifting from dirty to clean energy,” said Chen, who works at the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute for Nutritional Sciences in Shanghai.

“It’s time to make the same kind of change inside our body, too, with the shift from fat to glycogen.”

He said the breakthrough could possibly be reformatted in the form of drinking pills in the future to boost the PPP1r3G gene and curtail the accumulation of liver fat.

The fact that beer is fattening is no secret. One can of the “amber nectar” usually carries twice the number of calories of a soft drink, as alcohol contains 7 calories of energy per gram, compared to just 3 calories in carbohydrates and proteins. 

Most of this washes down the liver and gets stuck in the liver.

“Fat is the most common way of storing energy in our body, but it is also the dirtiest,” Chen said. 

“It releases lots of pollutant when it ‘burns’, just like coal.”

In contrast, glycogen is a cleaner “sugar tree” that stores energy in both the liver and muscles, said Chen, using the analogy of coal versus gas.

The researchers found that, by strengthening the PPP1R3G gene in rats, they could significantly reduce the aggregation of fat in the liver, an organ that plays a number of important roles including detoxifying metabolites and producing biochemicals needed for digestion.

The tests turned most of the alcohol into glycogen.

The team also believes the gene may be used to cure or ward off other diseases, for example by preventing diabetes.

However, this should not be taken as an argument in favour of binge drinking, Chen said, as no tests have yet been carried out on humans. 

The lab tests involved genetic engineering technology that is still not ready for clinical applications, the team said.