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.