June 14, 2017
Every year, 500 Americans die from inhaling a tasteless, odorless gas called carbon monoxide (CO). The only emergency treatment—the administration of high pressure oxygen—was developed more than 50 years ago. Now there may be a new antidote for CO poisoning.
CO is produced anytime you burn fuel. Common items like heaters, cars, stoves, lanterns, grills, fireplaces and even cigarettes produce the gas. The symptoms of CO poisoning include dizziness, weakness, vomiting, chest pain and confusion. If you breathe enough of it, you can pass out or die. Sleeping people often die when they do not notice symptoms soon enough. All homes and businesses should have CO detectors for safety.
CO is poisonous because it binds to hemoglobin, the protein in our red blood cells that supplies oxygen to the body. CO binds to hemoglobin more tightly than oxygen, preventing hemoglobin from supplying oxygen to your body. CO has its most profound effects on organs with the greatest demand for oxygen such as the brain and heart.
In the brain, severe CO intoxication can damage or kill neurons, which can impair basic functions of the brain like learning and cognition. CO exposure can also inhibit the process by which cells produce energy, and prolonged exposure can cause a loss of vision and hearing, memory problems and difficulty concentrating. In the heart, prolonged exposure to CO can lead to coronary heart disease or a heart attack. Unborn babies exposed to CO can have low birth weight, be stillborn or exhibit behavioral problems.
If we could somehow collect the CO in the body after exposure, that would improve the chances of someone surviving CO poisoning. There is a protein called neuroglobin that is usually found in the brain and eye, where it binds damaging oxygen compounds. Scientists were studying the functions of neuroglobin when they noticed that almost every sample of the protein had CO bound to it. At first they thought they had to purify the samples to remove it. However, when someone asked the lead scientist about an antidote for CO poisoning, he realized that neuroglobin may work.
Neuroglobin, discovered in 2000, is a member protein related to hemoglobin. Oxygen binds to neuroglobin more tightly than hemoglobin, so neuroglobin may be able to increase oxygen availability to the brain and provide protection when the supply of oxygen to the brain is cut off, potentially limiting brain damage. Scientists created a re-engineered neuroglobin protein designed to bind CO 500 times more tightly than the normal molecule. They tested the molecule on mice that were given a lethal dose of CO. When the modified neuroglobin was given within five minutes of CO exposure, 87% of the mice survived.
There is more research to do on the modified neuroglobin, such as trying different doses or administration methods, testing on larger animals, and determining the effectiveness at different times after CO exposure.
There is also the challenge of producing large amounts of the protein. Even with all the challenges, this modified neuroglobin could represent the first advance in the treatment of CO poisoning in 50 years.
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