Carbon monoxide poisoning ‘cure’ could clear deadly gas from blood

SANTA CRUZ, Calif. — Carbon monoxide is notoriously dubbed the “silent killer.” Per the CDC, carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning accounts for roughly 400 deaths and 20,000 emergency room visits annually. Now, research from the University of California Santa Cruz reports there may soon be a new way to quickly remove CO from the blood post-exposure.

One of the scarier aspects of carbon monoxide is the fact that it’s totally odorless and colorless. That means it can build up within an enclosed area without occupants realizing what’s happening. A closed garage with a running car, for example, is a common source of carbon monoxide poisoning.

Most carbon monoxide poisoning measures right now, such as household CO detectors, focus on preventing exposure before it occurs. Why? Medical options are very limited once CO poisoning has already happened. With this in mind, the research team UCSC set out to develop an effective, and easy-to-administer antidote.

“If you are exposed to carbon monoxide, the primary treatment right now is fresh air,” study author Tim Johnstone, an assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry at UC Santa Cruz, says in a press release. “It is a question of time. In fresh air, you need four to six hours for the level of CO in your blood to be cut in half. With 100 percent oxygen or hyperbaric oxygen, the half-life shortens further. Even then, the high blood levels of CO can persist long enough to lead to long-term deficits and neurological problems.”

Regarding the chemistry of carbon monoxide, it is made up of one oxygen atom and one carbon atom fused by a triple bond. Biologically speaking, CO looks to bind to metal centers like the iron in hemoglobin. When that happens, it stops those proteins from transporting oxygen from the lungs to the rest of the body’s tissues.

In an attempt to stop this process, study authors designed small molecules featuring many of the same qualities as the active hemoglobin site. The only difference? These new molecules are capable of binding with carbon monoxide much more tightly than the protein. One developed molecule in particular has displayed the ability to bind with carbon monoxide, sequester CO that has already been bonded to hemoglobin, and rescue red blood cells exposed to the gas.

Study authors say their discovery may have set the early groundwork for a cure.

The long-term goal is to create a point-of-care treatment that can be administered quickly to CO poisoning patients. Some of the most common CO poisoning symptoms include weakness, upset stomach, vomiting, chest pain, confusion, headache, and dizziness. Most of those symptoms can be caused by any number of health issues, so many people fail to realize what’s happening and don’t seek treatment as quickly as they should. An easy to administer, fast-acting treatment for CO poisoning would save many lives.

The study is published in Chemical Communications.

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