A few years back, Kelly Clarkson, the first winner of television’s biggest talent show, American Idol, reminded us of the adage “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” in her 2011 hit single ‘Stronger’. The unfortunate failure in that logic is that sometimes what you come up against will actually kill you. Today, we learn about researchers from the University of Exeter Medical School who have studied a potentially lethal substance for the remarkable health benefits it can provide.
Hydrogen sulfide, perhaps infamously known for its trademark odor of rotten eggs or a particularly foul brand of flatulence, is a heavier-than-air gas that, in the right concentrations, can asphyxiate those unlucky enough to find themselves in its noxious presence. To be certain, being trapped on an elevator with Earl from accounting while he wages an intestinal battle with last night’s pepperoni pizza will not be pleasant, but neither will it be a fatal ascendancy into the hereafter.
Twenty-five years ago this month, however, a dairy farming family tragically learned of the lethality of hydrogen sulfide when, at approximately 9am, five male members were overtaken by and succumbed to the oxygen robbing chemical compound. The incident occurred in the farm’s manure pit, an enclosed structure just off the cattle barn that had cattle feces electrically conveyed into it.
The tragedy began when the farmer’s 28-year-old son entered the pit to replace the shear pin on the agitator shaft. Accompanying him was his 15-year-old nephew who, upon seeing his uncle overcome, yelled to his younger brother outside the pit to go and get help. When help returned, the 15-year-old had also become unresponsive in the pit. While emergency services were en route, the farmer, his other son and the farmer’s nephew all entered the pit to attempt an extraction. In less than 20 minutes, the farmer, his two sons, his grandson and his nephew all lay motionless inside the putrid environment.
Why then would researchers look at this highly-toxic compound with the offensive odor for some form of health benefit? It may be because, as discussed above, what doesn’t kill you can make you stronger. The team found that hydrogen sulfide, in just the right tiny dosage, can help to fend off life-altering conditions, from diabetes to stroke, heart attacks and dementia. They believe the right dosage, which they designed and produced in a novel compound, could be instrumental in developing future therapies.
Early work with their new compound has shown that it actively protects the powerhouse of the cell – mitochondria. Mitochondria – which regulate inflammation and determine whether a cell lives or dies – drive energy production in blood vessel cells. If the compound can prevent or even reverse mitochondrial damage in these cells, the team believes their creation will be sought as a primary treatment for patients suffering from heart failure, stroke and diabetes, as well as for those diagnosed with arthritis and dementia. Dysfunctional mitochondria have already been linked as a factor in the severity of diseases.
“When cells becomes stressed by disease,” noted professor Matt Whiteman of the University of Exeter Medical School, “they draw in enzymes to generate minute quantities of hydrogen sulfide. This keeps the mitochondria ticking over and allows cells to live.” Continuing he stated, “If this doesn’t happen, the cells die and lose the ability to regulate survival and control inflammation. We have exploited this natural process by making a compound, called AP39, which slowly delivers very small amounts of this gas specifically to the mitochondria. Our results indicate that if stressed cells are treated with AP39, mitochondria are protected and cells stay alive.”
Echoing Whiteman’s sentiment, Dr. Mark Wood of Biosciences at the university stated, “Although hydrogen sulfide is well known as a pungent, foul-smelling gas in rotten eggs and flatulence, it is naturally produced in the body and could, in fact, be a healthcare hero with significant implications for future therapies for a variety of diseases.”
While the research has yet to progress to human trials, professors Whiteman and Wood are hopeful their early results will hasten that process. So far, after looking at several models of disease, the pre-clinical results are promising. Their work with regard to cardiovascular disease shows that greater than 80 percent of the mitochondrial cells are able to survive in otherwise hostile and highly destructive conditions when the AP39 compound is administered.
Additionally, small-scale studies presented last month at the 3rd International Conference on Hydrogen Sulfide in Biology and Medicine in Kyoto, Japan showed benefits of the compound in treating high blood pressure. AP39 was able to reverse blood vessel stiffening which aided in lowering blood pressure. Also, post-heart attack, the compound has been effective at helping to slow the contractions of the heart, improving its efficiency.
The University of Exeter study appears in the journal Medicinal Chemistry Communications. Researchers from the University of Texas Medical Branch have published their own work with the Exeter compound which shows AP39 selectively protects mitochondrial DNA in mitochondria. Protecting that DNA is crucial because, once damaged, it is unable to be repaired and thus leaves the individual far more vulnerable to disease symptoms. The University of Texas research follow-up study was published in The Nitric Oxide Journal.
Hydrogen sulfide, which has previously proven its unpleasant and even lethal qualities could, in fact, be one of the more important cure-alls to come along in some time. The broad applications in cardiovascular health and for the regulation of inflammation along with the clinical success already enjoyed by the AP39 compound will quite possibly improve the health outcomes for those afflicted with anything from high blood pressure to dementia. So, it would appear, in this one instance at least, Ms. Clarkson certainly knew of what she sang.