ATLANTA - If the sound of your carbon monoxide detector going off sends you running, Dr. Binghe Wang, Georgia State University Regents' Professor of Chemistry, says you're smart to be wary.
"Carbon monoxide, at a high level, it is lethal," Wang says. "It can kill people."
But, in small, carefully controlled doses, Dr. Wang says, carbon monoxide can help fight everything from inflammation to deadly infections.
The gas is even being studied in clinical trials of organ transplants, to see if it can boost a kidney patient's odds of survival.
"You know organ transplant is quite a traumatic experience, it causes a lot of inflammation," Wang says. "So part of that is to use carbon monoxide to suppress inflammation."
Most researchers are using carbon monoxide gas, but Wang's team is developing a carbon monoxide pill.
"That would allow patients to take it orally, so you can control the dose much more easily," Wang says.
The challenge is to create a stable CO pill that wouldn't release carbon monoxide until you want it to when it reaches your bloodstream or gut. Dr. Wang's team has tested prototypes of the pill in animals, to see if it can reverse liver damage from a Tylenol overdose, or help certain antibiotics or chemotherapy drugs work better.
Both projects, he says, have shown promising results.
Wang's team has found carbon monoxide may help make cancer cells more vulnerable to certain chemotherapy agents.
And, they found the gas may help one antibiotic work better by causing bacteria to become more sensitive to the drug.
It could take 7 to 10 years of successful clinical trials to get a carbon monoxide pill on the market.
Still, Dr. Wang believes the idea has huge potential.
"I've been doing medicinal research for 40+ years, and this is something that keeps me up at night because of the excitement," Wang says. "It really is exploring new territory."