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NO and Dynamite: The Unlikely Story of Alfred Nobel

Author: Dr. Lou Ignarro

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Many people know about the amazing benefits of Nitric Oxide, but few know the history of its discovery. While my colleagues and I were recognized for our discoveries about the molecule with a Nobel Prize* in medicine, the journey actually began in the nineteenth century with a man named Alfred Nobel.

A chemist, inventor and industrialist who held 355 patents, Nobel is best known for his invention of dynamite, an explosive material that uses nitroglycerin as its active ingredient. Despite its unstable structure, the substance was quickly put to use in the construction industry. It created such powerful explosions that crews were able to clear out mountains and hills quickly, allowing them to build roads, bridges, tunnels and dams more efficiently than ever before. As you can imagine, this impacted transportation across the globe and led Nobel to establish multiple dynamite factories.

At his factories, Nobel began to notice a strange pattern. On Monday mornings, many of his workers would complain of severe headaches, only to have the pain subside over the following weekend while they were away from work. Finally, it was discovered that the headaches were triggered by the factory’s use of nitroglycerin. The fumes from the yellow liquid were dilating blood vessels and increasing blood flow to workers’ brains, causing “vascular instability,” the dilation and/or constriction of blood vessels to the brain. Not surprisingly, Nobel also suffered from migraines, likely caused by his work with nitroglycerin.

At the same time, other factory workers who suffered from angina—severe pain in the chest due to inadequate blood supply to the heart—were noticing that they felt better at work andworse when they were away from the factory. While it became clear that nitroglycerin was the reason for their pain relief, no one knew why. Toward the end of the 1800s, physicians started prescribing small amounts of nitroglycerin to treat chest pain. Heart patients were feeling better, but the reason was still a mystery. How could something so dangerous—so explosive—be of benefit to the body? This question was still unanswered when I began my research, and it intrigued me so much that I devoted my life’s work to finding the answer.

Nobel died in 1896 of heart disease. He refused to take the nitroglycerin prescribed by his doctor—he couldn’t believe that something so dangerous could help his heart. I can’t help but wonder if he might have lived longer if he’d followed his doctor’s advice. Thankfully, just before he died, he dedicated most of his assets to the establishment of Nobel Prizes—likely a last effort to be remembered for something other than the deadly creation of dynamite.

While Nobel’s initial invention—dynamite—was one of destruction, it led to the discovery of one of the most important molecules for supporting heart health. He couldn’t have known his work would lead to something that would save so many lives. But I like to think that he’d be proud of the work that has been done in his name, work that you are helping continue through your involvement in the Heart Health Initiative.

How has the discovery of NO impacted you?

 

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