Hydrogen sulfide, a naturally occurring gas that smells like rotten eggs, may do more than make you want to hold your nose and run for the hills. Scientists have discovered that this gas, which is highly toxic and can be emitted from places such as hot springs, food-processing plants, and paper mills, may actually be beneficial to your health in at least one way: It may help reduce joint inflammation affected by rheumatoid arthritis.

British researchers at the Peninsula Medical School in Exeter, along with local rheumatologists, have discovered that hydrogen sulfide is present in the fluid that keeps your knee joints flexible. This so-called synovial fluid prevents cartilage friction during joint movement. Doctors compared the levels of hydrogen sulfide in the blood and knee-joint synovial fluid of three different groups of subjects-those with osteoarthritis, those with rheumatoid arthritis, and healthy individuals. The result? The rheumatoid arthritis sufferers were found to have more hydrogen sulfide in their synovial fluid than the others, and their blood levels of hydrogen sulfide were up to four times higher.

The research team suggests that hydrogen sulfide may be produced and/or used by the body in response to inflammation. The next step is to figure out ways to safely administer hydrogen sulfide to people suffering from rheumatoid arthritis and other inflammatory diseases. In 2008, the team was able to create a new molecule that released hydrogen sulfide in small, controlled amounts that aren't toxic. They are excited by the possibility that this breakthrough will help patients receive hydrogen sulfide in a safe manner. Whether the hydrogen sulfide would be given in the form of medication or dietary supplements remains to be seen. The researchers acknowledged that current medicines available to treat rheumatoid arthritis are effective, but in some individuals they damage the stomach lining, which can lead to further problems.

Rheumatoid arthritis affects about 1 percent of the world's population and can lead to disability and job loss. It affects women much more often than men, and also touches children.


Peninsula College of Medicine and Dentistry, www.pcmd.ac.uk

National Institutes of Health, www.nlm.nih.gov