Probiotics seem to be everywhere these days. They are marketed for numerous health issues, from irritable bowel syndrome and vaginal yeast infections to life-threatening disorders like the bacterial infection Clostridium difficile.
The new probiotic drink is made of genetically engineered bacteria meant to help people feel better the day after drinking.
While the probiotic gummies that you'll find in supermarkets may not do much for you, good clinical evidence does support the C. difficile treatment, known as a fecal transplant, despite a recent setback, and there are always new probiotic regimens entering the scene. One emerging such treatment targets the hangover.
You read that right – although "hangover" is a loaded term, according to ZBiotics, the company that's developing the product. The popular understanding of a hangover implies a collection of symptoms like a headache and fatigue, many of which result simply from dehydration and low-quality sleep. But those aren't the problems that the new product, a genetically engineered form of a common bacterial species, was developed to confront.
"Dehydration and poor sleep have actually always been pretty simple to deal with by having a good breakfast and some caffeine," notes ZBiotics founder and microbiologist Zack Abbott. Instead, the product targets acetaldehyde, a chemical that accumulates in the body if more than small amounts of alcohol are consumed.
Normally, body cells produce an enzyme that converts acetaldehyde into harmless acetic acid. But the enzyme becomes overwhelmed if you drink more than a little alcohol, or if you have a certain genetic deficiency.
A new probiotic drink aims to neutralize a chemical that builds up in the body after drinking alcohol.
"I started ZBiotics with the hypothesis that if we used edible probiotic bacteria to make enzymes, and chose applications in which the enzymes these microbes make would be useful directly in the gut after you eat them, we could create all sorts of beneficial products," says Abbott. "I started with alcohol with the idea that we can augment the body's natural ability to digest its nasty byproduct, acetaldehyde, helping people feel better the day after drinking."
Based on the premise that the engineered bacteria augments a natural body function, ZBiotics had the product "sampled by thousands of beta-testers," including ZBiotics personnel, with "almost unanimously positive feedback," says Abbott.
"We are working on future scientifically controlled testing for publication."
ZBiotics is to set to launch on the market next week as a probiotic supplement, a category that does not require FDA approval. But some observers are troubled over whether the new product is attempting to serve a medical function without going through the standard drug testing process.
"I am skeptical of any new alternative product that is not FDA approved, has not undergone rigorous double-blind placebo control testing and adverse effects evaluation, and cites anecdotes as evidence of its efficacy," warns Heather Berlin, a cognitive neuroscientist and assistant professor of psychiatry at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, in New York.
Abbott acknowledges that his product still needs to undergo rigorous study. "We are working on future scientifically controlled testing for publication," he says, noting that the company was "founded and [is] run by people with backgrounds in academic research."
Moving beyond the need for proper testing, Berlin has an additional concern: will a "hangover"-blocking substance cause people to drink more alcohol, or mask important physiological sensations like thirst?
"If that negative feeling is obscured, they may not [rehydrate], which can cause numerous adverse effects," Berlin says.
As for excessive drinking, there is a treatment on the market that does the opposite of Zbiotics. Disulfiram, commonly given to alcohol abusers, inhibits the very enzyme that ZBiotics supplements, causing acetaldehyde to accumulate especially fast. This makes drinking a pretty miserable experience.
But Abbott says his product would not interfere with disulfiram.
"[Zbiotics] is about enjoying the special moments in life where alcohol happens to be involved, but isn't the main focus."
"Disulfiram globally inhibits the enzyme throughout the entire body, including the liver, creating a massive amount of acetaldehyde at once, making the person ill immediately and forcing them to stop drinking right away," Abbott explains, whereas his product exerts its effects in the gut, and is really only helpful the next day. Thus, timing is everything; the probiotic would not change the experience at the moment of drinking.
"ZBiotics isn't about going out and ripping shots all night," Abbott says. "It's about enjoying the special moments in life where alcohol happens to be involved, but isn't the main focus. Weddings, celebrations, weekends with friends. And wanting to do that enjoyably while being safe and responsible at the same time."
The Friday Five covers five stories in research that you may have missed this week. There are plenty of controversies and troubling ethical issues in science – and we get into many of them in our online magazine – but this news roundup focuses on scientific creativity and progress to give you a therapeutic dose of inspiration headed into the weekend.
Here are the promising studies covered in this week's Friday Five:
- Research on a "smart" bandage for wounds
- A breakthrough in fighting inflammation
- The pros and cons of a new drug for Alzheimer's
- Benefits of the Mediterranean diet - with a twist
- How to recycle a plastic that was un-recyclable
Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are surging across the U.S. to 2.5 million cases in 2021 according to preliminary data from the CDC. A new prevention and treatment strategy now in clinical trials may provide a way to get a handle on them.
It's easy to overlook the soaring rates of gonorrhea, chlamydia, and syphilis because most of those infections have few or no symptoms and can be identified only through testing. But left untreated, they can lead to serious damage to nerves and tissue, resulting in infertility, blindness, and dementia. Infants developing in utero are particularly vulnerable.
Covid-19 played havoc with regular medical treatment and preventive care for many health problems, including STIs. After formal lockdowns ended, many people gradually became more socially engaged, with increases in sexual activity, and may have prioritized these activities over getting back in touch with their doctors.
A second blow to controlling STIs is that family planning clinics are closing left and right because of the Dobbs decision and legislation in many states that curtailed access to an abortion. Discussion has focused on abortion, but those same clinics also play a vital role in the diagnosis and treatment of STIs.
Routine public health is the neglected stepchild of medicine. It is called upon in times of crisis but as that crisis resolves, funding dries up. Labs have atrophied and personnel have been redirected to Covid, “so access to routine screening for STIs has been decimated,” says Jennifer Mahn, director of sexual and clinical health with the National Coalition of STD Directors.
A preview of what we likely are facing comes from Iowa. In 2017, the state legislature restricted funding to family health clinics in four counties, which closed their doors. A year later the statewide rate of gonorrhea skyrocketed from 83 to 153.7 cases per 100,000 people. “Iowa counties with clinic closures had a significantly larger increase,” according to a study published in JAMA. That scenario likely is playing out in countless other regions where access to sexual health care is shrinking; it will be many months before we have the data to know for sure.
A decades-old antibiotic finds a new purpose
Using drugs to protect against HIV, either as post exposure prophylaxis (PEP) or pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), has proven to be quite successful. Researchers wondered if the same approach might be applied to other STIs. They focused on doxycycline, or doxy for short. One of the most commonly prescribed antibiotics in the U.S., it’s a member of the tetracycline family that has been on the market since 1967. It is so safe that it’s used to treat acne.
Two small studies using doxy suggested that it could work to prevent STIs. A handful of clinical trials by different researchers and funding sources set out to generate the additional evidence needed to prove their hypothesis and change the standard of care.
Senior researcher Victor Omollo, with the Kenya Medical Research Institute, noted, “These are prevention interventions that women can control on their own without having to seek or get consent from another person,” as is the case with condom use.
The first with results is the DoxyPEP study, conducted at two sexual health clinics in San Francisco and Seattle. It drew from a mix of transgender women and men who have sex with men, who had at least one diagnosed STI over the last year. The researchers divided the participants into two groups: one with people who were already HIV-positive and engaged in care, while the other group consisted of people who were on PrEP to prevent infection with HIV. For the active part of the study, a subset of the participants received doxy, and the rest of the participants did not.
The researchers intentionally chose to do the study in a population at the highest risk of having STIs, who were very health oriented, and “who were getting screened every three months or so as part of their PrEP program or their HIV care program,” says Connie Celum, a senior researcher at the University of Washington on the study.
Each member of the active group was given a supply of doxy and asked to take two pills within 72 hours of having sex where a condom was not used. The study was supposed to run for two years but, in May, it stopped halfway through, when a safety monitoring board looked at the data and recommended that it would be unethical to continue depriving the control group of the drug’s benefits.
Celum presented these preliminary results from the DoxyPEP study in July at the International AIDS Conference in Montreal. “We saw about a 56 percent reduction in gonorrhea, about 80 percent reduction in chlamydia and syphilis, so very significant reductions, and this is on a per quarter basis,” she told a later webinar.
In Kenya, another study is following a group of cisgender women who are taking the same two-pill regimen to prevent HIV, and the data from this research should become available in 2023. Senior researcher Victor Omollo, with the Kenya Medical Research Institute, noted that “these are prevention interventions that women can control on their own without having to seek or get consent from another person,” as is the case with condom use, another effective prevention tool.
Antibiotic resistance is a potentially big concern. About 25 percent of gonorrhea strains circulating in the U.S. are resistant to the tetracycline class of drugs, including doxy; rates are higher elsewhere. But resistance often is a matter of degree and can be overcome with a larger or longer dose of the drug, or perhaps with a switch to another drug or a two-drug combination.
Research has shown that an established bacterial infection is more difficult to treat because it is part of a biofilm, which can leave only a small portion or perhaps none of the cell surface exposed to a drug. But a new infection, even one where the bacteria is resistant to a drug, might still be vulnerable to that drug if it's used before the bacterial biofilm can be established. Preliminary data suggests that may be the case with doxyPEP and drug resistant gonorrhea; some but not all new drug resistant infections might be thwarted if they’re treated early enough.
“There are some tradeoffs” to these interventions, Celum says, and people may disagree on the cost of increased resistance balanced against the benefits of treating the STIs and reducing their spread within the community.
Resistance does not seem to be an issue yet for chlamydia and syphilis even though doxy has been a recommended treatment for decades, but a remaining question is whether broader use of doxy will directly worsen antibiotic resistance in gonorrhea, or promote it in other STIs. And how will it affect the gut microbiome?
In addition, Celum notes that we need to understand whether doxy will generate mutations in other bacteria that might contribute to drug resistance for gonorrhea, chlamydia or syphilis. The studies underway aim to provide data to answer these questions.
“There are some tradeoffs” to these interventions, Celum says, and people may disagree on the cost of increased resistance balanced against the benefits of treating the STIs and reducing their spread within the community. That might affect doctors' willingness to prescribe the drug.
Turning research into action
The CDC makes policy recommendations for prevention services such as taking doxy, requiring some and leaving others optional. Celum says the CDC will be reviewing information from her trial at a meeting in December, but probably will wait until that study is published before making recommendations, likely in 2023. The San Francisco Department of Public Health issued its own guidance on October 20th and anecdotally, some doctors around the country are beginning to issue prescriptions for doxy to select patients.
About half of new STIs occur in young people ages 15 to 24, a group that is least likely to regularly see a doctor. And sexual health remains a great taboo for many people who don't want such information on their health record for prying parents, employers or neighbors to find out.
“People will go out of their way and travel extensive distances just to avoid that,” says Mahn, the National Coalition director. “People identify locations where they feel safe, where they feel welcome, where they don't feel judged,” Mahn explains, such as community and family planning clinics. They understand those issues and have fees that vary depending on a person’s ability to pay.
Given that these clinics already are understaffed and underfunded, they will be hard pressed to expand services covering the labor intensive testing and monitoring of a doxyPEP regimen. Sexual health clinics don't even have a separate line item in the federal budget for health. That is something the National Association of STI Directors is pushing for in D.C.
DoxyPEP isn't a panacea, and it isn't for everyone. “We really want to try to reach that population who is most likely going to have an STI in the next year,” says Celum, “Because that's where you are going to have the biggest impact.”