University of Iowa scientists harness culinary techniques and carbon monoxide to create new therapy


Edible foam, candy, gummy bears among vehicles

James Byrne, an assistant professor of radiation oncology and biomedical engineering at the University of Iowa, was a lead author on a study of ways to use carbon monoxide to treat inflammation. (Photo by University of Iowa)

IOWA CITY – Carbon monoxide is widely feared for its odorless, colorless and potentially deadly characteristics. But research has shown it can also be an effective therapy for inflammatory diseases – if only doctors could administer it safely and consistently.

That’s where new food-inspired research co-led by scientists at the University of Iowa comes in.

The study published June 29 in Science Translational Medicine found, for example, that by infusing carbon monoxide into consumable foams — like the ones chefs use on cooking shows to add flavor and sophistication to their plates – Doctors might have a safe way to get a therapeutic form of the dreaded gas into a patient’s gastrointestinal tract.

“As part of this study, we also looked at other things besides foams,” assistant professor of radiation oncology and biomedical engineering James Byrne, lead author of the study, told The Gazette.

Just as molecular gastronomy allows chefs to alter the physical composition of food, researchers have used the same techniques to incorporate carbon monoxide not only into mousse, but also into “solid gemstones” – like candy.” Pop Rocks” – or gummy bears.

“These are all made from what you might find in some of the leading culinary arts centers,” said Byrne, who in August launched the “Byrne Lab” user interface aimed at “developing transformative technologies to improve patient care.

Some of the experimental carbon monoxide edibles are sugar-based – so they would taste like candy. “But we haven’t tested this on patients yet,” he said. “All of this is in animals, rather than humans.”

The recently published study potentially unlocking this new therapy involved scientists from IU, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.

Using mice, rats and pigs, the team found that materials containing carbon monoxide helped three inflammatory conditions, without dangerous side effects.

The foam, delivered rectally, reduces colon inflammation in inflammatory bowel disease. It also reduced rectal inflammation caused by radiation therapy. And it has been shown to be beneficial in reversing acute liver failure caused by an overdose of acetaminophen.

“I treat a lot of cancer patients, and one of the common things we see are these radiation-induced side effects, and a lot of them involve the gastrointestinal tract,” Byrne said. “It is estimated that more than 200,000 radiation-treated patients in the United States will experience some degree of these radiation-induced mucositis or gastrointestinal toxicities.

“Inflammatory bowel disease is also extremely common,” he said. “We’re talking about hundreds of thousands of people in the United States who have and are managing these conditions…and so the opportunity to try to achieve these results using this alternative therapy is huge.”

The mousse can also be eaten with a straw or in a slush. The researchers created it using technology they developed resembling a whipping siphon – commonly used in cooking.

As for potential side effects, Byrne said, the US Food and Drug Administration has capped carbon monoxide levels to ensure the therapy is safe. “But, in general, we didn’t notice any undue side effects in the animals we treated,” he said.

As for when the treatment might start testing in humans and become available, Byrne said, an estimate is hard to come by.

“The focus now is really on trying to get things started as a business so we can bring this to patients,” he said. “It’s really the best way to get things done in a really quick way.”

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