Paolo Rossi Castelli 28 July 2022 19 min read

Carbon monoxide foam as a cure for the intestine

A new alternative therapy, developed by researchers at MIT in Boston, appears to be able to treat the intestine. It is a drug based on molecular cuisine techniques that reduces intestinal inflammation.

A carbon monoxide foam to treat inflammations of the gastrointestinal tract, including colitis, hepatitis and proctitis (inflammations affecting the final tract of the rectum) in a novel way. This is the innovative, and in some respects surprising, proposal from bioengineers and gastroenterologists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Brigham and Women's Hospital (Harvard Medical School) in Boston and researchers from other US institutions.

Scientists were inspired by the principles of molecular cuisine to develop a substance that could, at least potentially, change the treatment of this type of disease. Molecular cuisine, according to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, aims to produce new expertise by using chemistry and physics to underpin culinary processes.

Carbon monoxide (chemical formula CO) is a very dangerous gas in itself if inhaled, because it binds permanently to the haemoglobin in the blood, preventing oxygen transport to the tissues, and causing serious damage, or even death, if inhaled over a long period and at high concentrations. In small doses, however,' explain the American researchers in the journal Science Translational Medicine, 'CO can have therapeutic effects, especially against inflammation, and can help tissue regeneration.

Until now, however, no one had been able to exploit this feature of carbon monoxide properly, because no way had ever been found to bring it into contact with the tissues via a route other than the airborne one (which, as stated, can be very dangerous).

Inspired by molecular cuisine, researchers in Boston came up with the idea of incorporating the gas into a foam, just as chefs do by using carbon dioxide (the bubbles in carbonated mineral water) to create foams infused with fruit, vegetables or other flavours. Chefs' foams are usually made by adding a thickening agent to a liquid or pureed solid food, and then whipping the mixture to incorporate air, or by using a siphon that injects gas like carbon dioxide.


Very low toxicity

To 'handle' the carbon monoxide, researchers designed special siphons (different from classic molecular kitchen siphons) and then combined the CO with edible substances like maltodextrins, certain types of rubber, methylcellulose and alginates. They thus obtained a foam with different concentrations of carbon monoxide, to be administered rectally as well as orally.
Once the foam reaches its destination, it releases carbon monoxide directly onto the inflamed tissues.

When used rectally, the foam significantly reduced colitis and proctitis in laboratory animals. When taken orally, it was effective in alleviating hepatitis caused by excess paracetamol, a typical manifestation of hepatopathy.
No toxicity emerged in the tests carried out as the gas bound very little with the blood as it was no being inhaled.

Researchers now want to test this foam, together with others made from different gases, to treat diseases other than intestinal ones. In the meantime, they have also created gels and solid materials (inspired by fizzy candies, which incorporate carbon dioxide), all containing CO.

Irritable bowel syndrome and other issues: alternative remedies
Carbon monoxide can help reduce inflammation and stimulate tissue regeneration, but over the past years it has been observed that the gas has beneficial effects in preventing organ transplant rejections. In some cases, it can also slow down the growth of certain types of tumours.

US researchers note that as regards intestinal diseases, treatments for colitis and other inflammatory conditions like Crohn's disease currently tend to involve drugs that curb the immune system, which can make patients more susceptible to infections. "Treating these conditions with a foam that is applied directly to the inflamed tissue," the researchers write, "offers a potential alternative, or at least a complementary approach, to those immunosuppressive treatments.  


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Paolo Rossi Castelli

Journalist since 1983, Paolo has been dealing with scientific divulgation for years, especially in the fields of medicine and biology. He is the creator of Sportello Cancro, the site created by on oncology in collaboration with the Umberto Veronesi Foundation. He collaborated with the pages of the Science of Corriere della Sera for several years. He is the founder and director of PRC-Comunicare la scienza.