Stink Bombs Could Save Lives

The rotten-egg funk of a stink bomb comes from hydrogen sulfide gas. It's great for clearing a room, and new research shows it may also help heart attack and trauma patients stay alive. David Lefer, a professor of medicine and pathology at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, talks with Guy Raz about the medical uses for stinky fumes.

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GUY RAZ, host:

From NPR News, it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Guy Raz about to set off a stink bomb.

(Soundbite of glass breaking)

RAZ: Stink bombs are finally getting the scientific respect they deserve. It's Science out of the Box.

(Soundbite of music)

RAZ: An article in the latest issue of the journal Science says the chemical that gives stink bombs that rotten egg smell could also help keep heart attack and stroke victims alive. In high doses, the stuff will kill you but in low doses, hydrogen sulfide gas could give emergency room doctors more time to operate on a patient.

David Lefer, a professor at Albert Einstein College of Medicine has been studying the science of stink bombs, and he joins us now. Welcome.

Professor DAVID LEFER (Albert Einstein College of Medicine): Hi.

RAZ: So, tell me, how can a sniff of hydrogen sulfide actually save human life? How does that work?

Prof. LEFER: Well, we think at low levels, much lower than the toxic levels, that the hydrogen sulfide affects key metabolic processes and different cell types and actually puts the cells in a very protected state so that they are able to cope with different stresses and also different injuries.

RAZ: So, what kind of injuries?

Prof. LEFER: Well, our lab is primarily interested in heart attacks but other labs have looked at the trauma that ensues when one loses a large amount of blood. Other shock states - different types of trauma and shock.

RAZ: So, how does it react with the human body? I mean, what does it actually do?

Prof. LEFER: We don't know for sure but clearly as a gas, hydrogen sulfide can enter the cell very easily and can permeate all the different organelles within the cell. We think one of the ways that it works is to turn down the basic metabolic state of a cell.

RAZ: So, what are some of the practical applications of this potential discovery? I mean, for wounded soldiers in combat…

Prof. LEFER: Absolutely. If a soldier's critically wounded it may take an hour or longer to transport them to a proper medical facility. And with a dose of hydrogen sulfide this could buy time for the medic to transport the patient. We think the same is true with a person that has a car wreck. Folks that have heart attacks, it's good to slow down metabolism before they can actually get to the hospital.

We think there's also a lot of other diseases related to chronic inflammation, whether they be arthritis or inflammatory bowel disease or any disease that has an inflammatory component. We think that also might be amenable to hydrogen sulfide treatment.

RAZ: So, how would it work? I mean, if, for example, I had a heart attack. Would I sort of reach into my bag and grab a stink bomb, hydrogen…

Prof. LEFER: Well…

RAZ: …sulfide inhaler?

Prof. LEFER: …right now the main therapies that are being explored - one is gas, so if there was a cylinder that contained hydrogen sulfide, one could inhale that through a respirator system. But also there are a lot of different chemical compounds being developed that when they're injected intravenously and potentially when they consumed orally they release hydrogen sulfide.

RAZ: And just to be clear, you've been studying animals. This hasn't been tested on humans yet. Is there any timeline for when we might see hydrogen sulfide being used in the field?

Prof. LEFER: We know that there have been some clinical studies very recently exposing humans to different levels of hydrogen sulfide, to make sure that the levels that we're interested in are not going to be overly toxic. 'Cause as you know at high levels, hydrogen sulfide will kill you. That's the major side effect.

So, there have been preliminary studies in patients demonstrating safety in normal people under baseline conditions. So, I think once we complete additional studies of the potential toxicology of hydrogen sulfide, it may be five years or potentially ten years until this is mainstream therapy for different critical diseases.

RAZ: David Lefer is a professor at Albert Einstein College of Medicine and a researcher looking into the medical uses of stink bombs. Thanks for coming in.

Prof. LEFER: Oh, thank you, Guy.

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