Farts curing cancer? Ridiculous as it may sound, this seemingly unbelievable assertion is actually based on cutting-edge research literature. A scientific study published just last year in the journal Medicinal Chemistry Communications outlines how small amounts of hydrogen sulfide gas (H2S) in our cells can decrease their likelihood of becoming damaged. More specifically, the molecule helps mitochondria, the “powerhouse” of the cell responsible for energy production, to cope with certain chemical stresses that have been linked to numerous diseases including diabetes, hypertension, and even cancer.1 The researchers synthesized a hydrogen sulfide transporter molecule (AP39) and evaluated its effectiveness in bringing H2S into the mitochondria that are experiencing these stresses. After observing some promising results, in which stressed cells treated with AP39 were better protected than the control, one of the researchers hailed the compound as a “healthcare hero with significant implications for future therapies for a variety of diseases.” 2
So where do the farts come in? Well, hydrogen sulfide gas is notorious for smelling really bad, and is naturally found in volcanic gases, sewers, and of course farts! Despite its awful reputation, H2S is produced in minute quantities by amino acids in your body and is a critical signaling molecule in your cells.1
So far, so good, right? Why let that precious H2S go to waste when we could just take it back in again? You can probably tell by now that things aren’t that simple. First of all, the original research paper never mentioned anything about farts, or more generally, an external method of integrating the gas into your body.3 In addition, there is no evidence that inhaling the molecule is an effective method of getting H2S into the infected cells. In fact, the researchers only concerned themselves with in vitro studies where all of the observations happened outside of the context of the human body.1 After all, the purpose of the article was not that the gas H2S itself acts as a protective agent; instead, the article detailed the effectiveness of a transporter molecule for the gas that could become a potentially useful pharmacological tool to combat diseases.
However, this didn’t stop those popular science magazines and even news outlets to hype up the findings of the paper by jumping to the seemingly ludicrous conclusion that smelling farts could possibly be a protective measure against cancer.4,5 Such an assertion is rather unsubstantiated, and caution needs to be taken when the general public reads such articles without the context of the actual research paper. In fact, even a well-known magazine like Time had to admit to inaccurately summarizing the findings and implications in an earlier version.2 Thus, a critical takeaway from this is that popular science articles may tend to exaggerate research findings possibly as a way to make them sound more interesting or accessible while in most cases, the research articles themselves can only afford to arrive at relatively small, preliminary insights into their research topic. Nevertheless, rather than adding flatulence therapy onto your list of home remedies, we should still be comforted by the fact that these early research findings may just pave way to some very big implications in the medical world.
James Siriwongsup is a sophomore from McMurtry College at Rice University.
1. Le Trionnaire, S, et al. The synthesis and functional evaluation of a mitochondria-targeted hydrogen sulfide donor, (10-oxo-10-(4-(3-thioxo-3 H-1, 2-dithiol-5-yl)phenoxy)decyl) triphenylphosphonium bromide (AP39)." Medicinal Chemistry Communications 2014, 5, 728-736.
2. Stampler, L. A stinky compound may protect against cell damage, study finds. http://time.com/2976464/rotten-eggs-hydrogen-sulfide-mitochondria/ (accessed 9/25/2015), part of Time
3. Winter, L. No, smelling farts can’t cure cancer. http://www.iflscience.com/health-and-medicine/can-smelling-farts-cure-cancer (accessed 9/25/2015), part of IFLScience
4. Conaboy, K. Can smelling farts cure cancer? Scientists say yes-ish! http://gawker.com/can-smelling-farts-cure-cancer-scientists-say-yes-ish-1604346953 (accessed 9/25/2015), part of Gawker
5. Fart smells have health benefits, according to Exeter University researchers. http://www.westerndailypress.co.uk/Fart-smells-health-benefits-according-Exeter/story-21447028-detail/story.html (accessed 9/25/2015), part of Western Daily Press