Researchers at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston exposed endothelial cells (cells from the innermost layer of blood vessels) of rats to sugar at a concentration that mimicked a level found in the blood vessels of someone with diabetes.
"Upon exposure to such high sugar levels, the cells started to produce increasing amounts of highly reactive toxic free radicals, and as a consequence, they began to die," said lead researcher Dr. Csaba Szabo.
"Low hydrogen sulfide levels accelerated this process, while constant replacement of hydrogen sulfide protected the cells against the toxic effects of high sugar," he added.
The researchers showed that diabetic rats have lower levels of hydrogen sulfide in their circulatory systems than other animals. Furthermore, the team showed that treating diabetic rats for a month with hydrogen sulfide improved the function of their blood vessels.
"The loss of endothelial cell function in diabetes is a first step that leads to many complications, such as eye disease, heart disease, kidney disease, foot disease and others," Szabo said.
"The observation that hydrogen sulfide can control an early checkpoint in all of these processes may open the door for new therapies."
The study is published in the online early edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.