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No, Farts Don't Prevent Cancer: Claims Don't Pass the Smell Test

Cracked egg

Two eggs Win Initiative / Getty Images

No, smelling farts will not prevent cancer or cure disease, despite news headlines Friday that went viral over the weekend.

Like this one: “Scientists say sniffing farts could prevent cancer." Or this one: “Smelling flatulence could help you live longer, scientists claim.“

Actually, scientists made no such claims. But nearly a dozen news outlets could not resist extrapolating from a University of Exeter press release titled: “Rotten egg gas holds key to healthcare therapies.”

Perhaps it was this quote from the press release that led some reporters astray: “Although hydrogen sulfide is well known as a pungent, foul-smelling gas in rotten eggs and flatulence, it is naturally produced in the body and could in fact be a healthcare hero with significant implications for future therapies for a variety of diseases,” said Dr. Mark Wood of the biosciences department at the university, based in the United Kingdom.

The actual journal article in Medicinal Chemistry Communications that inspired the press release was not about smelling farts or preventing any particular disease. Instead, it discussed the development of a compound, called AP39, that in laboratory experiments delivered very small amounts of hydrogen sulfide to mitochondria, an organelle that is the powerhouse of cells.

When stressed by disease, mitochondria use minute quantities of hydrogen sulfide to keep working. “If this doesn’t happen, the cells die and lose the ability to regulate survival and control inflammation,” said co-author Professor Matt Whiteman of the University of Exeter Medical School.

“Our results indicate that if stressed cells are treated with AP39, mitochondria are protected and cells stay alive,” said Whiteman.

Research into the regulatory role of hydrogen sulfide is confined to cells grown in petri dishes and in mice, but it is no joke, Dr. Csaba Szabo, a professor of anesthesiology at the University of Texas in Galveston, told NBC News, “and would be a real tragedy if social media turned it into one.” Szabo has collaborated with the University of Exeter researchers and conducted experiments of his own.

“Hydrogen sulfide regulates vascular function, inflammatory responses, neurotransmission in the brain, many different things,” says Szabo, including cancer.

“If you incubate cancer cells in the laboratory with hydrogen sulfide or a compound that produces hydrogen sulfide, you can do two things. At lower concentrations, you can stimulate the cells, and at the higher concentrations, you can kill the cells,” says Szabo.

Complicating matters is research that shows some cancer cells, such as colon and ovarian cancer, produce large amounts of hydrogen sulfide to help them survive and grow. In fact, the biology of hydrogen sulfide is so complex, says Szabo, that both low and high concentrations could be potential future cancer therapies.

“But none of this research says you should go and inhale farts,” adds Szabo.