Emory Report
September 8, 2008
Volume 61, Number 3



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8, 2008
Fearsome-smelling gas could have beneficial uses in medicine

By Quinn Eastman

A single breath of hydrogen sulfide, a gas best known for its rotten-egg smell, can kill. But at low concentrations, hydrogen sulfide could protect vital organs during surgery, research conducted by new School of Medicine surgery professor David Lefer suggests.

Lefer came to Emory this summer from Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York. He and his co-workers recently showed that delivering hydrogen sulfide to the liver can reduce damage caused by loss and restoration of blood flow in a mouse model of liver surgery. The results are published in the August issue of the American Journal of Physiology, Heart and Circulatory Physiology.

“As a gas, hydrogen sulfide has a number of advantages,” Lefer says. “It diffuses across cell membranes, it can be delivered quickly and it protects cells via several basic biochemical pathways.”

The authors show that hydrogen sulfide reduces inflammation and oxidative stress when blood flow to the liver is cut off. In the study, hydrogen sulfide is given intravenously, but Lefer says it may be possible to deliver it via inhalation or orally.

Lefer says liver surgery is just one example of a situation where hydrogen sulfide may be beneficial.

He and his colleagues at Albert Einstein previously showed that hydrogen sulfide can limit scarring and inflammation in the heart muscles of mice after a simulated heart attack. It appears to do so by protecting the mitochondria, the cell’s mini-power plants, from structural damage.

Hydrogen sulfide resembles another poisonous gas that has attracted considerable attention: nitric oxide, Science magazine’s “molecule of the year” in 1992. Both gases regulate blood pressure and play key roles in controlling oxidative stress, a physiological indicator that predicts vascular disease.

Lefer is a consultant for Ikaria, a company that is developing technology for hydrogen sulfide delivery.