Building a Better Sports Drink

Henry J. Binder, Professor Emeritus of and Senior Research Scientist in Medicine at Yale, didn’t set out to create a better Gatorade—but in looking for a means to help people suffering from dehydration to better absorb nutrients he may have done just that. “Dehydration in patients with diarrhea is due to large amounts of electrolyte and fluid loss stimulated by chloride secretion,” says Binder. He wanted to find a way to increase the body’s ability to retain fluids when it needed them most.

In order to rehydrate patients suffering from cholera, Binder and colleagues from Flinders University in Australia and Christian Medical College in India identified that short chain fatty acids enhance sodium and water absorption in the large intestine. Next, they needed to find a way to induce the body to produce these short chain fatty acids which are not in the diet. They found that resistant starch was key. Resistant starch does not break down in the small intestine but travels to the large intestine where bacteria ferments it to short-chain fatty acids resulting in an increase in sodium and fluid absorption. Cholera patients who ingested it had a marked improvement in rehydration. “Resistant starch did better than the World Health Organization’s oral rehydration solution by upwards of 35-50%,” Binder says. 

While his solution has not been adopted as an approved intervention for cholera, the Yale Office of Cooperative Research (OCR) worked with Australian-based Flinders Partners to match his discovery with a commercial opportunity—namely, helping athletes retain the fluid they need to perform at maximum capacity and recover more quickly from exertion.

Pro athletes lose significant water and electrolytes during games. An NFL running back could shed four to five pounds of water weight during a game; and a lineman nearly nine pounds. Replenishing with water or popular sports drinks isn’t enough.

“Studies show a fluid loss of 2% in bodyweight is common during exercise for many sports, which can reduce athletic performance by as much as 29%,” says Sinead O’Connell, the licensing director of Flinders Partners which is developing a sports hydration system called PREP’D around Binder’s research.

Flinders tested a variation of the formula on an elite Australian rules football team (a contact sport that draws its origins from rugby and Gaelic football). They used a two-part hydration strategy, with resistant starch-based drinks consumed the night before training, and then again midway through training until one hour afterwards. O’Connell says the athletes “started training better hydrated and finished training heavier—meaning they lost less bodyweight. They also recovered faster.”

Flinders plans to launch the product into the $17B global sports drink market in early 2018 and have created a new company called Preserve Health to take PREP’D to market. Preserve Health’s Managing Director, David Vincent, says, “Despite the impact of dehydration on athletic performance being a well-understood problem in sports science, the formulation of sports drinks have barely advanced in the past 50 years. PREP’D changes this by using resistant starch to access an untapped hydration potential in the body of up to 30%, allowing athletes to perform at their peak for longer.”  

“This has been an international effort spanning three continents over many years and a great deal of credit is due to our Flinders Partners colleagues for their thoughtful and persistent approach to validating this technology for the elite athletic market,” says David Lewin, Senior Associate of Business Development at OCR who led the product licensing for Yale.

While Binder is enthusiastic about the potential for the new sports drink to provide superior rehydration to athletes—he hasn’t given up on his initial vision to help people in the developing world suffering from cholera and other diarrheal illnesses. “That has always been my primary motivation,” Binder says.

CONTACT: Brita Belli, Communications Officer, Yale Office of Cooperative Research, (203) 804-1911, brita.belli@yale.edu.