University of Calgary

Research in Action

The smell of success

Hydrogen sulfide is turning the corner from offensive to medically effective

By Kyle Glennie

Dr. John Wallace has found anti-inflammatory properties in hydrogen sulfide.

Dr. John Wallace has found anti-inflammatory properties in hydrogen sulfide.
/ Photo by Ken Bendiktsen

It’s one of the most foul smelling and noxious gasses on the planet. In high concentrations, even a small breath of it can kill you almost instantly. So why would Dr. John Wallace, a professor at the Faculty of Medicine’s Department of Pharmacology and Therapeutics, begin researching the possible health benefits of hydrogen sulfide?

“I was looking for something novel and something different in drug development,” he says. “I was basically looking for something I could exploit to make new drugs.”

But during the past four years of research and testing, Wallace found something more than an opportunity—he found that this substance, once thought of as extremely harmful, was actually incredibly helpful.

Hydrogen sulfide occurs naturally in our bodies, although in extremely small amounts. While research into its possible health benefits is nothing new, Wallace is the first to discover its anti-inflammatory properties. 

“Drugs like Aspirin and Ibuprofen can cause ulcers, we know this. But we’ve found when we chemically graft hydrogen sulfide with existing drugs like those two, we limit inflammation in the stomach and prevent these ulcers from occurring,” he says.

Although this discovery could one day lead to hydrogen sulfide being fused with many common painkillers, Wallace and his company, Antibe Pharmaceuticals, are concentrating on other medications.

“Our main focus is on drugs for inflammatory bowel diseases like Crohn’s disease. We’ve basically taken an existing drug that is weak and added hydrogen sulfide to make it much more potent.”

Wallace’s research in this area is quite advanced, with human testing hopefully beginning in the next couple of months. That’s the first of three steps towards government approval for public use. But it’s not these three phases of clinical testing that form the major hurdle for Wallace and his company.

“The main problem is money,” he says. “As fast as we can raise it, we spend it on testing and research. We have studies required for Food and Drug Administration approval before we can even get to clinical testing, and we’ve hired some companies to do those. It’s always a money issue.”

And by “money issue,” Wallace isn’t talking about a few thousand dollars out of his pocket. So far, he says they’ve spent about $2.8 million, with about $20 million more needed over the next three years. So where has most of this cash come from?

“It’s called friends and family,” Wallace says with a laugh. “Neighbours, parents, brothers; anyone who will listen.”

Brighter days may be on the horizon. Wallace says some venture capitalists are interested in funding his research as he moves closer to government approvals. If they’d had the big-wallet backing from the start, Wallace believes he could have been testing on humans last year.