Thinking Tech

Take a carbon monoxide pill and call me in the morning

Posting in Science

Rethink carbon monoxide? It's not just a silent, odorless and tasteless killer. Researchers studying its medicinal effects have come up with promising results.

Most people think of carbon monoxide (CO) as the odorless killer that spews from tailpipes.

But for years, researchers have quietly been studying the healing effects of carbon monoxide in an amazing variety of diseases and conditions. Research in animals shows it can counter rentenosis, the reclogging of arteries following balloon angioplasty. It's been shown to  help fight organ rejection in rats and pigs.  Even cerebral malaria has been suppressed by CO.

The medical community has gone from completely scoffing at the the idea that such a poisonous gas can be medicinal to "moderately  skeptical," according to a story in this morning's Boston Globe. Research has been promising enough that the National Institutes of Health has given a $1.4 million grant to Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, the story says.

The Wikipedia definition of CO states the following: "Carbon monoxide is a colorless, odorless and tasteless gas, yet [is] very toxic to humans." CO suffocates red blood cells and as such makes me glad I just put a new battery in our home carbon monoxide detector.

But the potential of  CO as a medical treatment has evolved during the past several years. A decade ago, Leo Otterbein, an associate professor at Beth Israel Deaconess, was studying a benefical human enzyme which had CO as a byproduct. Given that CO was produced in the body, he wondered how it contributed to the enzyme's success in breaking down substances, the Globe story recounts.

Leo Otterbein

While he claims he was laughed out of conferences by the medical establishment, Otterbein kept studying it and finally got some promising results that suggest CO in low doses can serve as an anti-inflammatory therapy. His extensive work with other researchers on CO can be found in several articles published by The Journal of Experimental Medicine.

Otterbein's work has been promising enough to spur a start-up company called Alfama, which is working on creating carbon monoxide releasing molecules or CORMs. Otterbein sit on its Advisory Board.

"Inhalation of CO at doses between 10 and 1000 ppm (in most cases 250 ppm) protected animals against septic shock, hemorrhagic shock, restenosis after arterial balloon injury, pulmonary hypertension, lung and heart injury," according to Alfama's web site. Besides studying the impact of CO on those acute conditions, Alfama is also focusing on how CO inhibits proteins that cause rheumatoid arthritis.

Maggotts in a wound

But there's great fear about CO's toxicity. I imagine patients were just as nervous  with maggotts being used to clean their wounds. While not as lethal as CO, such a treatment has been around for hundreds of years and was used widely in the Civil War and WWI.

Alfama's introduction to its Science section puts these types of treatments into perspective:"Our remedies oft in ourselves do lie (William Shakespeare, All's Well that Ends Well, 1603)."

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John Dodge

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor John Dodge has written for the Wall Street Journal, Boston Globe, PC Week (now eWeek), EDN, Design News, Electronic Business, Bio-IT World, Health-IT World, Lowell Sun, Haverhill Gazette and Newburyport Daily News. He is based in Massachusetts. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure