Archives for the month of: April, 2012

After writing a first column for the Western Mail as part of the Welsh Crucible, I was given an opportunity to write a second article. I’ve learnt you should never turn up these types of opportunities so I quickly wrote another column, this time on the potential of carbon monoxide as a medicine and the origin of the pharse “Go blow smoke up your arse”.  This column appeared in print and online yesterday.  Thankfully this time without my hungover head shot.

To the column:

Following its import from the Americas in the 16th century, tobacco was considered a useful medicine. Physicians and religious leaders since the ancients had believed in the healing power of smoke from various aromatics such as incense. The belief in the healing power of tobacco smoke was an evolution of this superstition. It may surprise you that 17th century physicians administered tobacco smoke not only via the lungs, but also via the rectum in the form of a tobacco smoke enema which is apparently the origin of the phrase “go blow smoke up your arse”*.

A tobacco smoke enema was “prescribed” for a wide range of ailments, including drowning! The practice reached its zenith in the 18th century, but continued well into the 19th century due to success in treatment of gut problems. However, the discovery that nicotine, the active ingredient in tobacco was poisonous to the heart led to the decline in the technique. However we now understand that a different poison in the smoke, carbon monoxide, may have been responsible for the beneficial effects.

The immediate association of carbon monoxide as a poison is an accurate one. Carbon monoxide is released by poorly fitted boilers, as well as being a major constituent of cigarette smoke and car exhausts. 50 people in the UK die each year from carbon monoxide poisoning, so having a carbon monoxide detector fitted in your house is a good idea.

However, it is less well known that carbon monoxide is also produced in tiny amounts naturally in the body. It is made by enzymes breaking down the red haem molecule (found in haemoglobin in red blood cells) into green biliverdin and yellow bilirubin molecules. You can see this process take place when a red bruise turns a mixture of green and yellow before healing completely.

For many years carbon monoxide was considered a waste product, which served no purpose in the body. But we now know that naturally produced carbon monoxide has important effects in the body. My research is concerned with identifying some of the proteins affected by carbon monoxide and in particular how it affects ion channels. Ion channels are the proteins responsible for the electrical activity in cells such as neurons, but they are also found in the gut. In many models of disease carbon monoxide production appears to be beneficial and this has led to idea that carbon monoxide may be a potential medicine in the future, and may explain the benefits observed from 17th century tobacco smoke enemas.

Like much of the research undertaken in the Cardiff University School of Biosciences, this work aims to understand the fine details of how our bodies function and the microscopic details of diseases, rather than directly testing new treatments for use in patients. By better understanding how our bodies work, we will be in a stronger position to design new drugs and treatments in the future.

* The latter half of this sentence was cut from both the print and online versions of this article – which is a bit of a shame.

Do not, and I repeat, do not google image search "tobacco smoke enema" with your safe search off. You have been warned.


As a member of the 2011 Welsh Crucible I was given the fantastic opportunity to write a column for the Western Mail, a national tabloid in Wales, outlining some of my research.  Below is my first column which appeared in print & online on Monday October 3rd 2011.  The print version also contained an alarmingly large head shot (see picture), taken when I was a bit hungover on one morning of the Welsh Crucible programme.  A new collaboration arising from the Welsh Crucible was an idea to write about scientists and their lives working in science.  Writing about Geoff Burnstock for this article inspired us to interview Geoff about his career for the new Life In Science blog, which hopefully we’ll get around to a new post soon.

To the article:

Basic biomedical research, which I and many of my colleagues undertake in the School of Biosciences, is an important part of the process of improving human health and the treatment of diseases.  On the whole, we do not directly test treatments on patients rather we investigate the microscopic details of the causes of disease, in order that more effective treatments can be designed by clinical researchers and pharmaceutical industries in the future.

My current interest is in understanding how the pancreas works.  I am currently working alongside Professor Ole Petersen who was recently appointed the director of the School, and is a world-leader in the field of pancreatic research. Together, we are investigating which members of the purine family of receptors — which bind a chemical called adenosine triphosphate (ATP) — are involved in the secretion of digestive enzymes by the pancreas and how these receptors change in early childhood as the pancreas matures.  We hope that by understanding the development of the pancreas in early life we might have some clues as to how to assist the pancreas to repair itself in adults suffering from diseases such as alcoholic pancreatitis.

The potential impact of work such as mine is great, but the real effects on human health may be years in the future.  One reason for this is that the purine family of receptors are only relatively recently discovered.  We have only known about the existence of purine receptors for around the last 30 years or so; a seemingly long time perhaps, but a short time in the history of medicine. The future of this family of receptors as targets for drugs is bright as they appear to play important roles all over the body; however, these receptors have a rocky past.

Purine receptors bind ATP and chemically similar compounds. You may recall ATP from your school biology lessons since it is made by every cell in the body and is the energy source for most cell functions. In the early 1970s a British Scientist working in Australia by the name of Geoff Burnstock proposed that ATP was also released by cells to send messages to other cells.  Burnstock worked hard during the 70s to prove his theory, but he was treated as a scientific heretic, with many researchers thinking it unlikely that such a common molecule with an important role providing cellular energy would be released and found outside cells.

By the end of the 70s Burnstock was proved correct, and there are now 100s of researchers around the world researching the importance of purine receptors in a variety of diseases. In November this year four purine researchers from Cardiff including myself are hosting a meeting of the UK Purine Club, where around 100 UK researchers, including Geoff Burnstock, will present their latest research and discuss ideas for future research.  This meeting is important for our research and is fantastic showcase for Wales; we will use the hotel and conference facilities available in Cardiff and show off our fantastic City to researchers from across the UK.