'An unusual approach': Canadian scientists exploring use of carbon monoxide to treat sepsis

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Researchers in London, Ont. are studying the use of a surprising gas as a possible option to treat sepsis: carbon monoxide.

A life-threatening condition that occurs when the body’s response to an infection triggers excessive inflammation, sepsis can cause damage to organs such as the heart, liver, lungs and brain.

While there are currently limited treatments for sepsis, researchers at Lawson Health Research Institute are working to change that by examining the use of carbon monoxide-releasing molecules to treat patients.

“This is an unusual approach that is looking at using carbon monoxide which is the infamous gas molecule,” said Dr. Gedas Cepinskas, scientist and director of the Centre for Critical Illness Research at Lawson. “If administered and used in small non-toxic concentrations, carbon monoxide can offer very potent protective and anti-inflammatory effects.”

In studies on the subject, the research team was able to demonstrate efficacy in using carbon monoxide-releasing molecules to protect individual cells in the liver and lungs from sepsis-induced inflammation in preclinical models.

“We have been working on isolated organs and organ-specific cells to test carbon monoxide-releasing molecules to narrow down which specific cells are more sensitive to treatment and which biochemical pathways are involved,” said Cepinskas. “We are making great progress in our work and have had success in addressing the efficacy of carbon monoxide-releasing molecules in preclinical models.”

Cepinskas is one of just a few scientists worldwide studying carbon monoxide-releasing molecules to treat inflammatory conditions such as sepsis.

While carbon monoxide is commonly known as dangerous, using it in a controlled manner does not pose a danger and may have therapeutic potential.

“Our immune system is usually our defense system, but with sepsis it becomes so activated it starts to attack our own cell tissues, resulting in injury and dysfunction of the affected organs,” explained Cepinskas. “Almost each and every cell in our body naturally produces carbon monoxide which is used in defense against harmful and injured stimuli. We are taking advantage of this knowledge and currently we are the only lab in Canada working on this potential carbon monoxide-based therapy.”

Cepinskas is also collaborating with clinicians at London Health Sciences Centre (LHSC) to study the use of carbon monoxide-releasing molecules to treat limb compartment syndrome and to improve organ transplantation.

The research team, which has patents in the area of carbon monoxide-releasing molecules, is now working with the pharmaceutical industry to move this potential therapy into human clinical trials in the future.