Research published in Anesthesiology shows how the team safely gave xenon to 12 patients undergoing coronary artery bypass grafting while on cardiopulmonary artery bypass, a step which could eventually lead to new treatments for people suffering from illnesses that damage nerve cells, such as strokes, and brain and spinal cord injuries.
Earlier preclinical work by the team showed that xenon was effective as a neuroprotectant, stopping processes present during strokes or brain and spinal cord injuries that would damage nerve cells. They found that xenon was capable of blocking the effects of a particular type of glutamate receptor, the same receptor implicated in the pathway that leads to nerve cell death.
The discovery that xenon acted as a neuroprotectant came about when Professor Nick Franks, a biophysicist from Imperial College London was investigating possible molecular targets which could be responsible for the action of different anaesthetics.
Professor Mervyn Maze, an anaesthetist from Imperial College London who has collaborated with Prof Franks in the xenon research programme, said: "We knew from our earlier studies that xenon was effective in stopping damaged nerve cells from dying, but this study is of tremendous importance as it shows that it is feasible to administer xenon safely to a population of patients at risk for developing brain damage. What we need now is a clinical trial to test the efficacy of xenon in large numbers of patients.
"Xenon could provide a whole new way of treating nerve damaging illnesses. Although we can stop people dying from these illnesses, there is not much we can do to stop the nerve damage that ultimately leads to devastating long-term disability.
Professor Franks added: "We hope xenon could be developed as a novel treatment. It is naturally occurring, and more importantly, its known lack of toxicity makes it an attractive candidate as a neuroprotectant in humans.
"Ultimately, we hope xenon could become part of standard medical treatment, with paramedics being able to administer it to stroke and brain-injured victims to stop ongoing nerve cell death."