Bill Wilkinson: Could carbon monoxide be beneficial for health?

Dr Bill Wilkinson is a research associate in the School of Biosciences at Cardiff University.

Following its import from the Americas in the 16th century, tobacco was considered a useful medicine.

Physicians and religious leaders since the ancients believed in the healing power of smoke from various aromatics such as incense. The belief in the healing power of tobacco smoke was an evolution of this superstition.

It may surprise you that 17th century physicians administered tobacco smoke not only via the lungs, but also via the rectum in the form of a tobacco smoke enema.

A tobacco smoke enema was prescribed for a wide range of ailments, including drowning.

The practice reached its zenith in the 18th century, but continued well into the 19th century due to success in treatment of gut problems.

The discovery that nicotine, the active ingredient in tobacco was poisonous to the heart led to the decline in the technique.

But we now understand that a different poison in the smoke, carbon monoxide, may have been responsible for the beneficial effects.

The immediate association of carbon monoxide as a poison is an accurate one.

Carbon monoxide is released by poorly fitted boilers, as well as being a major constituent of cigarette smoke and car exhausts.

Fifty people in the UK die each year from carbon monoxide poisoning, so having a carbon monoxide detector fitted in your house is a good idea.

However, it is less well known that carbon monoxide is also produced in tiny amounts naturally in the body.

It is made by enzymes breaking down the red haem molecule (found in haemoglobin in red blood cells) into green biliverdin and yellow bilirubin molecules.

You can see this process take place when a red bruise turns a mixture of green and yellow before healing completely.

For many years carbon monoxide was considered a waste product, which served no purpose in the body.

But we now know that naturally produced carbon monoxide has important effects in the body.

My research is concerned with identifying some of the proteins affected by carbon monoxide and in particular how it affects ion channels.

Ion channels are the proteins responsible for the electrical activity in cells such as neurons but they are also found in the gut.

In many models of disease, carbon monoxide production appears to be beneficial and this has led to idea that carbon monoxide may be a potential medicine in the future.

It may also explain the benefits observed from 17th century tobacco smoke enemas.

Like much of the research undertaken in the Cardiff University School of Biosciences, this work aims to understand the fine details of how our bodies function and the microscopic details of diseases, rather than directly testing new treatments for use in patients.

By better understanding how our bodies work, we will be in a stronger position to design new drugs and treatments in the future.

To conatct Bill email

This article first  appeared in the Western Mail‘s Health Wales supplement on the 2nd April 2012 as part of the Welsh Crucible series of research profiles.