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“Swamp Gas” Protects Blood Vessels from Complications of Diabetes

Aug 12, 2011

Hydrogen Sulfide,a foul-smelling gas with an odor resembling that of rotten eggs and sometimes called “swamp gas,” is generally associated with decaying vegetation, sewers and noxious industrial emissions. As strange as it may seem, it also plays a critical role in protecting blood vessels from the complications of diabetes, according to a new study.

Recently, work from several laboratories has shown that hydrogen sulfide is produced by the body in small amounts, and that this gas plays important roles in the circulatory system. In their new paper, the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston researchers describe experiments with human endothelial cells (cells from the innermost layer of blood vessels) and diabetic rats that demonstrate the importance of hydrogen sulfide levels in determining whether diabetes will lead to blood vessel complications.

Dr. Csaba Szabo’s team started by exposing endothelial cells to sugar at a concentration that mimicked a level found in the blood vessels of someone with diabetes. “Upon exposure to such high sugar levels, the cells started to produce increasing amounts of highly reactive toxic free radicals, and as a consequence, they began to die.” “Low hydrogen sulfide levels accelerated this process, while constant replacement of hydrogen sulfide protected the cells against the toxic effects of high sugar.”

The researchers went on to show that diabetic rats have lower levels of hydrogen sulfide in their circulatory systems than other animals. Furthermore, the team showed that treating diabetic rats for a month with hydrogen sulfide improved the function of their blood vessels.

“The loss of endothelial cell function in diabetes is a first step that leads to many complications, such as eye disease, heart disease, kidney disease, foot disease and others,” Szabo said. “The observation that hydrogen sulfide can control an early checkpoint in all of these processes may open the door for new therapies.”

Published in the online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Aug. 2011