The future that Ghost in the Shell predicts is one where upgrading our bodies is easy: Removable eyes? Sure. Ten-fingered hands? No problem. But the most compelling of all the technologies unveiled in Major’s world is the drinker’s dream — the cybernetic liver — which, as one Section 9 agent put it, means “it’s last call every night.” We haven’t developed souped-up livers to process booze faster and better quite yet, but these advances in biotech promise to make future happy hours much, much happier.
For years, scientists have been trying to craft alcohol that gets you drunk but doesn’t wreak havoc on your liver. The latest to try is New York- based scientist Harsha Chigurupati, who has added to his new vodka brand, Bellion, a compound called NTX, which is supposed to prevent alcohol damage to the liver and DNA. The word is still out on whether the Alcohol Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau will allow Chigurupati to claim that NTX reduces the risk of alcohol-related liver diseases on Bellion’s label, but in his petition he cited over 70 studies on NTX as proof. (The bad news: It doesn’t actually prevent hangovers.)
Pig Liver Transplant
The problem that long-term heavy drinkers eventually run into is liver disease caused by oxidative stress — that is, the damage caused to cells and DNA as a side effect of the intensive alcohol-processing steps the liver takes. Also, one byproduct of alcohol metabolism is a chemical called acetaldehyde, which the NIH classifies as a carcinogen. When your liver damage from alcohol is really bad, the best chance at treatment is getting a liver transplant, but these are increasingly hard to get — at least, from humans. Scientists are currently trying to figure out how to grow a human liver inside a pig in hopes that the resulting liver can be transplanted into a person without fear of triggering an “invader” response from the person’s immune system.
Liver on a Chip
Relatedly, finding drugs to help prevent or reverse the damage caused by alcohol to the liver is about to get a lot easier thanks to “liver-on-a-chip” technology. These days, scientists are trying to create tiny, functional models of human livers using actual human tissue so that they can test drugs on them rather than on animal models, which take longer to run tests on and, obviously, don’t provide human-centric data. (Livers aren’t the only tiny organ scientists have made; they’ve created beating hearts, kidneys, and vaginas, too.)
Inspired by the vampiric idea that young blood extends life, scientists have been trying for decades to perfect the process of parabiosis — or exchanging the blood of the old with that of the young. In 2005, one iteration of this experiment carried out at Stanford University showed that the older mice that received young blood had not only rejuvenated muscles but livers, too.
A recent review of previous research in the American Journal of Physiology Gastrointestinal and Liver Physiology reported a new use for an old drug: Statins, long used to treat high cholesterol and heart diseases, seem also to work on improving liver function in people with chronic liver injury — though the researchers are careful to point out that their review requires follow-up work because OD-ing on statins can also cause liver damage. “In most cases, the benefits of statins outweigh any potential hepatotoxic risks,” the researchers wrote. “Thus, comparing benefits and risks of statin treatment individually could help improve its efficacy.”