Carbon monoxide the new nitric oxide?

Sounds crazy, since carbon monoxide (CO) has long been known as a poisonous gas–it’s one of the substances in cigarettes that requires a warning on the package. But a new theory holds that CO may have, in very reduced and controlled doses, protective medical benefits that are not unlike some of those that nitric oxide provides.

The National Institutes of Health have just awarded $1.4 million to Beth Israel Deaconess medical center to study the underlying biology of carbon monoxide. When a grad student researcher there began 10 years ago to study the effects of an enzyme that breaks down a substance in the human body and then the body itself produces CO as a byproduct. He was curious as to what potential benefit carbon monoxide might be providing. According to the article, that researcher and other scientist:

“…found that breathing the gas for an hour at about 5 to 10 percent of a fatal exposure has beneficial effects in animals with a range of illnesses, from malaria to cardiovascular disease. While its actions are only partly understood, the gas seems to play a role in controlling inflammation, regulating cell death, and promoting repair and renewal.”

Much work remains to be done, but results so far are promising. The goal will be to create a drug that works the way CO does, but doesn’t suffer the stigma of carbon monoxide as a poisoning agent.It’s always exciting to see researchers looking at the natural processes of the body for clues on making human intervention more effective.

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