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Hydrogen sulfide. That rotten egg smell.

Dr. Rui Wang, the Vice-President of Research, Economic Development and Innovation as well as a professor of Biology at Lakehead University, has been fascinated with it ever since he came across an old, cracked painted Easter egg in his daughter’s room many years ago.

In 2001, Dr. Wang and his research team garnered world-wide recognition in the scientific community when they discovered the mechanism for the production and function of hydrogen sulfide (H2S) in the cardiovascular system in a process catalyzed by an enzyme called CSE.

Now, they’ve made another ground-breaking discovery.

Toiling away in Lakehead University’s Cardiovascular and Metabolic Unit Laboratory for the past three years, Dr. Wang’s team of scientists has been trying to figure out how mammalian cells can sense changes in oxygen levels and take necessary measures to cope with hypoxia (oxygen and blood flow deprivation). Hypoxia occurs in life-threatening situations like heart attacks and strokes.
It turns out that H2S gas is key to this puzzle, proving, in Dr. Wang’s words, that “we are what we smell.”

The breakthrough,in Dr. Wang’s words…
“Mitochondrion is the power plant inside the cell. It produces ATP to drive our cells to work. It’s like gasoline for a car engine.
The production of ATP is dependent on the availability of oxygen which is carried by blood flow to different organs in our body.

This is why when a heart attack occurs, less blood flows to the heart, less oxygen is supplied, less ATP is produced, and the heart does not work well.
Our team demonstrated that indeed mitochondria can produce H2S under stress conditions due to a specific enzyme moving from the cytosol into the mitochondrion of the mammalian cells.

Once this step is achieved, H2S inside the mitochondria will help to produce more ATP when oxygen levels are lower – the situation that may be encountered in hypoxia, which is a lack of blood flow and oxygen supply.

This will protect and rescue our cells from hypoxia damage. These results suggest that mitochondria inherit the ability from bacteria to produce energy using H2S as the fuel to cope with emergency situations to maintain the energy supply to our cells and organs. Furthermore, as mitochondrion in our cells is evolved from bacteria, our study unveils a missing link in the evolution from bacteria to mammalian cells in terms of energy metabolism.”

The results of this major breakthrough appear in one of the world’s most prestigious scientific journals, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS).

The paper “Hydrogen sulfide (H2S) metabolism in mitochondria and its regulatory role in energy production” is written by Dr. Wang and fellow co-authors Ming Fu, Weihua Zhang, Lingyun Wu, Guangdong Yang, and Hongzhu Li.

“We have been able to show that the production of H2S is important for the energy supply to our body when it faces specific health threats,” Dr. Wang says. “We can use this new knowledge to help biomedical practice deal with different diseases, such as those occurring in the heart or brain.”

Paradoxically, H2S – the “sour” gas that produces that distinctively unpleasant and distasteful odour – is actually deadly to humans in high doses. But as Dr. Wang and his team have proven, adequate production of this “toxic” gas in our body could be key to the prevention or treatment of hypertension, heart attacks and strokes in humans.

“Delving further into the mysteries of hydrogen sulfide is one of my main research priorities,” he says. “This is just the beginning of our work to find clinical solutions to deal with low oxygen-related diseases.”

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