Feb. 25, 2000 ATHENS, Ohio -- Two compounds that occur naturally in animals and people may help protect red blood cells against damage that can cause some forms of anemia, including one common in alcoholics.
When red blood cells from 30 male alcoholics were mixed with the two compounds -- found in skeletal and heart muscles and in the central nervous system -- the compounds prevented alcohol's assault on red blood cells, also called erythrocytes, allowing the cells to keep their typical healthy shapes.
The study, published this month in the journal Alcohol and Alcoholism, was conducted by scientists at Ohio University and in Russia.
Anemia is a problem in chronic drinkers because ethanol, alcohol's intoxicating agent, weakens the structure of red blood cells, which transport oxygen to organs and tissues. Symptoms include a lack of energy, poor mental processing and a weakened immune system.
The scientists suspect the compounds under study -- carnosine and N-acetyl-carnosine -- work as antioxidants, substances that prevent a type of cell damage. The finding has implications for the development of a treatment for anemia in alcoholics, a protocol that currently involves weaning drinkers off alcohol while improving their diets, says Peter Johnson, professor of biomedical sciences and the lead researcher on the project from Ohio University.
Such a treatment would involve extracting the compounds from animal tissues and using them in a dietary supplement to protect red blood cells. Johnson's colleagues at two Russian institutions found that the compounds have a 50 percent absorption rate in the digestive tract, which means it's possible the treatment could be administered in a pill.
The work also may be relevant for certain nonalcoholic anemias, Johnson adds, though the compounds probably would not protect against iron deficiency anemias.
In the recent study on alcoholic anemia, blood samples from 30 male chronic drinkers showed that only 10 percent to 20 percent of red blood cells had normal, smooth-surfaced structures, with the majority displaying abnormal, spiky surfaces. The latter cells are unstable and have only about half the 120-day life span of healthy erythrocytes. Test tube experiments showed that carnosine or N-acetyl-carnosine dramatically decreased the percentage of the damaged, spiky-surfaced cells in the blood samples.
"They almost look like floating sea urchins," Johnson says. "This abnormal surface structure would be a signal for the mechanisms of the spleen to try to pull these out of circulation. That would contribute to the anemia."
While the researchers are hopeful their work one day will lead to help for alcoholics who have anemia, Johnson says there is much to be learned about the compounds first. Their exact function in the body hasn't been confirmed and tests on red blood cells so far have been conducted only in test tubes.
But the success of the laboratory studies and earlier work on the compounds' usefulness in treating eye cataracts suggests the compounds will perform well in protecting red blood cells in later trials.
"Our interest in using these compounds in erythrocytes is that they are natural and nontoxic compounds," Johnson says.
Study co-authors include Valentina D. Prokopieva and Nikolai A. Bohan of the Mental Health Research Institute, Medical Academy of Sciences of Russia; Hiroki Abe of the Laboratory of Marine Biochemistry, University of Tokyo; and Alexander A. Boldyrev of the M.V. Lomonosov Moscow State University in Russia. Funding was provided in part by the Ohio University College of Osteopathic Medicine.
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