This Is NOT a Story about Sniffing Farts for Health
Woe is the reporter who can’t help but make a new scientific paper into a fart joke.
But seriously. Was there any reportable science behind headlines of Fart gas may help prevent dementia, heart disease: study and Cancer Risk Reduced by Smelling Farts Study Suggests?
Forget farts, those headlines make me sick.
A Liberty Voice reporter wrote “[h]ydrogen sulfide was previously considered to be a toxic molecule until more recent research has proved that in small doses it has its merits.” Yeah, well nitric oxide and carbon monoxide are important to the function of our cells and various cellular pathways as “gasotransitters” too, but nobody in their right mind would tell you to go sniff those gases.
So let’s get to the science. The scientific paper behind this terrible science news reporting is actually interesting to a scientist-turned-communicator who used to create what I like to call stealth nanodrugs. My specialty was attaching DNA-based drug compounds onto nanoparticles. DNA strands that would never otherwise make it to their target destination in one piece could be protected and ferried into cells by nanoparticles we could control with light. (How sci-fi, right?! The technique has serious limitations, though.)
But let’s get back to the paper causing all this flatulence. The synthesis and functional evaluation of a mitochondria-targeted hydrogen sulfide donor, (10-oxo-10-(4-(3-thioxo-3H-1,2-dithiol-5-yl)phenoxy)decyl)triphenylphosphonium bromide (AP39). That’s a mouthful.
As it turns out, there are disease states in the human body associated with lower than normal production and bioavailability of hydrogen disulfide, a rather simple inorganic compound composed of two sulfur atoms and hydrogen atoms.
Hydrogen disulfide (H2S), the gas that gives rotting eggs, and apparently also farts, their stench, is actually an important gasotransmitter in your body. H2S relaxes blood vessels and lowers blood pressure. For example, if we purposely disrupt H2S production enzymes in *some* lab animals, we see symptoms of hypertension and atherosclerosis.
There are enzymes that produce H2S in your mitochondria. Imagine the mitochondria as the tiny, oblong workhorses of your cells. They create the chemical energy that your muscles need to fire and that your enzymes need to crunch away doing what they do best.
The dysfunction of your mitochondria are never a good thing. These organelles can be stressed by compounds such as hydrogen peroxide (that bubbly solution you might have poured over your scrapes and cuts) produced as side products of various processes going on inside your cells. Mitochondria dysfunction happens in disease states such as hypertension, diabetes and heart disease.
But researchers, as they are apt to do, have gone about trying to help those dysfunctional mitochondria by delivering extra H2S to them. It so happens that H2S available close to or inside your mitochondria can protect these powerful yet fragile organelles from stressors floating around such as hydrogen peroxide.
Cue the H2S donors: compounds that deliver hydrogen disulfide into your body. These compounds, including some natural ingredients in garlic and an H2S-releasing derivative of aspirin, have potential therapeutic applications in hypertension, acute and chronic inflammation and yes, cancer. They may even be able to promote healthy aging.
But this is far from the whole picture. For one, H2S may only have biological effects close to or in your mitochondria, meaning it has to get inside your cells first. This is no easy task. Imagine the cell as a strictly gated community. Only certain molecules can get inside, and different cells have different gate codes to get in. And if H2S doesn’t get into your cells where it needs to be to have positive effects on your mitochondria, it is quickly metabolized, or changed, into a variety of other products. And you can’t just overload the body with H2S either, in order to make sure some of it gets to where it belongs. Excessive production of H2S can have other extremely harmful effects in the body.
A second challenge exists for H2S. Your cells might be tiny to you (you can’t see them without a microscope) but they are HUGE to our little H2S! Once this little guy gets into one of your cell’s gated communities, he has to find his way to the factory (the mitochondria) and to the right place in the factory to do his job. [Ok, I know there aren’t factories inside gated communities, but you know what I mean – this could be a gated village!]
So what you REALLY need is a specialized little vehicle to ‘carry’ the H2S into your cells to where it belongs, or where its presence is often lacking if you have hypertension, diabetes, inflammation, etc.
THIS is where our flatulence-producing study comes in. Despite poor media coverage, this study accomplished an interesting little feat of drug delivery. The researchers produced a new carrier for our familiar fart-scented H2S. The H2S was combined chemically with this carrier along with a molecular component called TPP+ that acts like a tiny magnet for the mitochondrion. Traditionally drugs haven’t been great at delivering H2S straight to the mitochondria. But this new drug, named AP39, was able to deliver H2S to the right place in cells grown in the lab.
When the researchers tested their AP39 “H2S-donor” on human cells (in a petri-dish), they found an increase of H2S inside the cells – actually near the cells’ mitochondria. They also found that the drug reduced stress damage to mitochondria when it was delivered along with a dose of hydrogen peroxide solution.
You can see a pretty picture of the H2S (stained green) at higher doses inside cells treated with the AP39 drug here. By also staining the mitochondria red, the researchers could confirm that the H2S was specifically located near mitochondria inside the cells (green and red in the same locations produces yellow!)
In other words, this paper was ACTUALLY about a successful delivery system for H2S, NOT the benefits of H2S on any sort of clinical (human) level. The potential therapeutic effects of H2S for humans are actually “controversial due to conflicting published results regarding its effects on cellular activities arising, perhaps in part, from the use of different H2S donors.” In other words, different carriers of H2S might have varying effectiveness in getting the compound to where it needs to go in the cell to have positive effects. On top of that, researchers still don’t know the exact mechanisms and pathways whereby H2S might protect your mitochondria from various stressors.
So while you can go ahead and enjoy those farts if you’d like, the free H2S in those “fart fumes” won’t have any health benefits that I know of.