Is a new treatment for alcohol poisoning on the horizon?

A close-up of a row of alcohol bottles By Alexandru Nika/Shutterstock

Good news has been a little scarce this year—to say the least. It looks as if 2020 might be ending off on a slightly happier note, though, judging by a string of encouraging stories about vaccinations, economic resiliency and, of course, the return of backyard ice skating rinks. And we can add to this a new life-saving treatment option for a range of poison cases, including alcohol, developed by a team of researchers right here in Canada.

As most people know, alcohol, like other toxins, is metabolized by the liver. Turns out, though, not all of the poison is cleared from the body that way—a certain amount is eliminated by breathing it out through the lungs. And, in November, a team of researchers at the University Health Network in Toronto found a way to substantially increase the amount of alcohol a patient can clear through the lungs (three times as much), therefore putting less reliance on the liver.

“Basically, the idea is that many of these toxins go from the blood into the lungs and, from there, evaporate into the air as you breathe it out,” explains Dr. Joseph A. Fisher, lead researcher, anesthesiologist and senior scientist at the Toronto General Hospital Research Institute. “It can only work with a substance that actually evaporates, which, you know is true for alcohol because, if you’ve ever spoken to somebody who’s been drinking alcohol, you can smell it on their breath.”

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Unfortunately, even deep yoga breathing isn’t enough to make a meaningful difference to a poison case or, for that matter, your own intoxication levels. To clear enough alcohol to change the outcome, a person with alcohol poisoning would actually have to hyperventilate, which isn’t safe, since it upsets the balance of carbon dioxide and oxygen in the body. That’s why people pass out.

Fisher and his team invented a safe workaround, though—the ClearMate, a lap-top sized, low-tech piece of equipment invented at Thornhill Medical, that, under medical supervision, makes hyperventilation safe. The patient’s body still does the work of eliminating the alcohol, but the breathing apparatus keeps blood levels stable. Fisher says that it could be a game-changer in emergency rooms and the field of toxicology, in general.

“It means we can get rid of terrible toxins through the lungs, without doing dialysis or taking any medicines that have side effects,” says Fisher. “These cases are generally difficult or almost impossible to treat and here you have a simple thing that could treat them inexpensively and effectively.”

And it’s not just for alcohol poisoning. All volatile toxins can be eliminated through the lungs, including carbon monoxide, anesthetics and methanol.

“I think the important thing is that it’s a novel way of getting poisons out of your body and it’s benign because you just breathe it off,” he says. “So, you know, it’s a good news story because you can be poisoned and get rid of it with a method that has no risk or downside. How often in life does that happen?”

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