Sodium Nitrite May Be a Cheap, Potent Therapy for Heart Attacks, Strokes and Other Ailments
The salt that preserves hot dogs and other cured meats — like beef jerky, bacon, and ham — seems to have a role to play in preserving a person's health. According to researchers at the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, "sodium nitrite" has gotten a bad rap over the years — and could serve as a cheap and potent treatment for such ailments as sickle-cell anemia, heart attacks, brain aneurysms, and pulmonary hypertension.
Schmalfeldt: This isn't an invitation to run down to the corner hot dog stand to stuff yourself. But the salt that preserves hot dogs and other cured meats like beef jerky, bacon and ham, seems to have a role to play in preserving a person's health. According to Dr. Mark Gladwin, section head of the Vascular Therapeutic Section of the Cardiology Branch of the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, the salt known as "sodium nitrite" has gotten a bad rap over the years.
Gladwin: People have always worried about nitrite in meat curing and its possible risk of stomach cancer. The problem was, nitrite's also in good foods. It's in very high concentrations in spinach. Nitrite is present in leafy green vegetables, beets. So it's not just in hot dogs, beef jerkey, cured ham. So what happened was studies were done looking at the association between diets rich in nitrite and stomach cancer. And there was no association. So that risk has really been debunked.
Schmalfeldt: Dr. Gladwin said it's been known for some time that the chemical sodium nitrite exists naturally in our blood and tissues, but that it was thought to be a waste product of nitric oxide, a molecule that opens blood vessels and increases blood flow. Then about five years ago, in collaboration with Doctor Richard Cannon at the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, Dr. Gladwin and his fellow researchers started looking into blood flow in human circulation and found that as the blood went from the artery to the vein, nitrite levels in the blood dropped as if the nitrite was being used for something. Dr. Gladwin said that raised the question of whether or not nitrite was being converted back to nitric oxide. This led to studies where subjects were given inhaled nitric oxide. Dr. Gladwin said that nitric oxide converted to nitrite, and was associated with an increase in blood flow. That led to further studies.
Gladwin: So finally, about a year ago, we actually infused nitrite into the arms of normal volunteers here in the Clinical Center. And, to our surprise, this molecule that was supposed to be inert, robustly increased the blood flow to the arms of our volunteers. So what we found was (in) levels just above the physiologic level in our own blood, nitrite actually opened up blood vessels and dilated.
Schmalfeldt:Dr. Gladwin said more study needs to be done, but the way is already clear for some uses of nitrite in a clinical setting.
Gladwin: We currently have FDA approval for short infusions of nitrite, such as we would use for heart attacks. So we're currently planning studies to look at nitrite as a therapy for heart attacks in patients, and we're working on further toxicology studies to get approval to give it as a nebulization to babies with high blood pressure in the lungs.
Schmalfeldt: If eventually approved for widespread clinical use, Dr. Gladwin said nitrite could be a cheap and potent treatment for such ailments as sickle cell anemia, heart attacks, brain aneurysms, and pulmonary hypertension. Dr. Gladwin said more comprehensive clinical trials are perhaps just a year or two away. From the National Institutes of Health, I'm Bill Schmalfeldt in Bethesda, Maryland.
About This Audio Report
Reporter: Bill Schmalfeldt
Sound Bite: Dr. Mark Gladwin
Topic: Sodium Nitrite, Stroke, Heart