Volume 9, Number 9 January 11, 2002

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Wang’s research findings may help treat high blood pressure

— Studies of hydrogen sulfide and carbon monoxide in body opens new field of medical uses of body gases —

U of S Physiology Professor Dr. Rui Wang, third from left, chats recently with members of his research team in his lab in the Health Sciences Building.  From left are: Yanjie Lu, Weimin Zhao, Wang, and Colleen Safiniuk.

A gas that smells like rotten eggs and can be toxic to humans in the environment plays a valuable role within the body in regulating healthy blood pressure, according to the findings of a University research team.

In a just-published animal study, the U of S team led by physiology professor Dr. Rui Wang has discovered that hydrogen sulfide gas produced in blood vessel muscle cells acts as a relaxant — new knowledge that could help prevent and treat high blood pressure.

“Until now, people had always thought that hydrogen sulfide was just a toxic gas,” said Wang in a news release announcing the find.  “We now understand the role of hydrogen sulfide in the cardiovascular system and how it plays this role as a vascular dilator. We are also the first to measure where in the cardiovascular system hydrogen sulfide is produced and how much.” 

Regular blood pressure depends upon the ability of blood vessel muscle cells to contract or expand appropriately, Wang explained. His research has revealed that hydrogen sulfide acts as a biological switch for relaxing contracted blood vessels, thereby reducing blood pressure.

Wang, whose research is funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), and the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Saskatchewan, said the next step is to genetically modify the enzyme that generates hydrogen sulfide in order to control production of the gas. This could lead to improved treatment of hypertension or high blood pressure, but the scientist cautions that new drugs would be at least three to five years away.  

It is known that, in addition to blood vessel muscle cells, organs such as the brain, pancreas, kidneys and lungs also produce hydrogen sulfide and Wang said further research could also lead to better prevention and treatment for diseases that affect these organs.

“Our research could revolutionize scientists’ thinking on endogenous (produced within the body) gases,” said Wang whose team includes post-doctoral fellows Weimin Zhao and Yanjie Lu, as well as NSERC-supported graduate student Jing Zhang.

“We have opened a new field of study and will continue to lead in hydrogen sulfide gas research.”

To date, only two other gaseous molecules in the body have been found to modulate physiological functions. One is nitric oxide and the other is carbon dioxide. Since 1993, Wang’s lab has played a leading role internationally in the study of the cardiovascular effect of carbon monoxide, known since the early 17th century as the “silent killer”.

In November, CRC press released a new book entitled Carbon Monoxide and Cardiovascular Functions.  Edited by Wang, the book paints a new picture of carbon monoxide as a physiologically important gas using the collected knowledge of internationally respected scientists.

For more information, contact communications.office@usask.ca

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