There is no dog to blame here.
There is, however, a small black box on the wall of each room in this little research laboratory toward the rear of the Laurentian University campus. Each box has special sensors that can, if necessary, sound an alarm.
"Fart detectors," Dr. Rui Wang calls them.
He is laughing but not joking. The sensors are not there to catch squeakers but to protect lives. Dr. Wang and his associates deal with H2S, hydrogen sulfide, a gas that is stinky but harmless in small doses and deadly in large releases. It is the No. 1 occupational hazard for those who work in oil and natural gas.
"Protection, not detection," he says, warmly tapping on the little black box.
While mass quantities of the gas can be a danger to human life in the energy industry, Dr. Wang believes the gas, moderated in extremely small quantities, can be harnessed to do wonders for people's health.
His "eureka moment" dates back to 2000 when he and his colleagues were able to clone an enzyme known as CSE in vascular smooth muscle cells and then show that this enzyme has the ability to synthesize H2S in our blood vessels. The gas dilated the vessels, thereby lowering blood pressure.
Subsequent experiments on a genetically-engineered mouse strain that developed hypertension proved that H2S plays a significant role in regulating health – a role that Dr. Wang now sees could affect everything from bad breath to erectile dysfunction.
"It's a universal solution for many things," he says. Humans, he believes, will be able to live longer and healthier lives if a proper H2S balance can be found for them.
"No one believed H2S was a real thing," says Dr. Wang. "People just thought, 'You fart – that's a bad thing.'
"Well, it's not."
Dr. Wang cautions that there is a significant difference between the H2S people pass – or claim they didn't – and the minute amount of H2S produced in blood vessels. The gas that empties elevators and leads to desperate denials is produced by what he calls "bacteria in our gut," and the concentration can be 100 to 1,000 times higher than that produced by our own cells.
Not surprisingly, the genesis for his research goes back to rotten eggs. It was 1998, and Dr. Wang had returned home and thought there must be a sewage backup. The stench was horrible. He finally tracked it down and found that his elder daughter Jennifer had kept some beautifully coloured Easter eggs that she had painted at school, but the teacher had neglected to have the children first poke a small hole in the shell so that the contents could be blown out. The rotten eggs had cracked and released their smell.
Dr. Wang had completed his PhD in physiology at the University of Alberta and was studying the functions of a group of small molecules of gas known as gasotransmitters. Research into one of these gases, nitric oxide, had shown that nitrogen monoxide (NO) is made by the body in very low concentrations but serves as a signalling molecule that affects cell behaviour. Research by three American scientists revealing that it dilated blood vessels and helped regulate the immune system won the 1998 Nobel Prize in medicine.
"I started thinking that there might be another gas involved," says Dr. Wang.
Perhaps the rotten egg smell gets a bad rap, he thought, and he wondered if perhaps there was some unknown relationship between that much-maligned smell and human health.
"It's what you smell at hot springs," he says. "H2S is the 'fart' smell. It's very healthy. People don't know why they go to hot springs, they just go, but it's the H2S that they're going for."
When he began his research back in 2000, the presence of H2S in the vascular system was little studied, not at all understood, and certainly not appreciated. "Our body is just like an egg," he says. "We have our body [the shell]. We have protein. We have bacteria. I looked for H2S. I wondered if we had the enzyme that produces it in the cardiovascular system. I found it. But that H2S is produced by the blood vessels, not by bacteria."
NO relaxes blood vessel walls by activating an enzyme that resides in smooth muscle cells. H2S manages the same feat, but through an entirely different path. What H2S does is activate special proteins that control the flow of potassium ions out of smooth muscle cells, which are found in the walls of several organs. The flow has the effect of relaxing those muscles and dilating the blood vessels found there, thereby lowering blood pressure.
Dr. Wang's research on the human fart has brought him and the school international recognition. Of the five top academic papers on H2S published in the world last year, Dr. Wang held down positions 1, 2 and 4. His output is so enormous that in 2015 he accounted for 48 per cent of Laurentian University's total citations in academic papers and 24 per cent of that of his previous school, Lakehead University.
His $6-million Cardiovascular and Metabolic Research Unit is also home to Dr. Lily Wu, a professor in the School of Kinesiology and an expert in metabolic disorders. They met during China's Cultural Revolution when both were sent to work in an isolated village. They came to Canada in the mid-1980s and have two daughters born here: Jennifer, a PhD student at Stanford University, and Jessica, a graduate of McGill currently working in business in Toronto.
The 60-year-old scientist knows that his research will bring laughter and he uses it as a tool. "If you don't fart, you die," he likes to say.
When Dominic Giroux, Laurentian's president, was recruiting Dr. Wang to leave Lakehead University for Laurentian in 2014, one word kept coming up as he checked his references: "Hilarious."
But there may be better reasons to smile than grade-school giggles. He believes worldwide research into the effects of adding or depleting H2S in the human body is reaching "high tide" and will lead to better protection from heart attack and stroke. If harnessed properly, the gas could keep trauma victims alive until they can undergo surgery or receive blood transfusions. Some of Dr. Wu's research is into what H2S levels mean to the production of insulin and the treatment of diabetes. It is even possible that H2S could operate as a sort of "scavenger" in the tracking down of cancer cells.
"In five years," Dr. Wang predicts, "you will see a breakthrough."
He believes it "very, very possible" that before too long, a pharmaceutical company will come out with a "fart pill." There are already garlic pills widely available and used in the treatment of high blood pressure, and garlic is known to encourage the production of H2S in the body. A dedicated H2S pill, he says, "will be much more effective."
Beyond that, he believes, H2S could become important in the treatment of erectile dysfunction. He has unpublished data on this potential connection, and he believes there is even a link to sperm production.
"A man who farts a lot will not have reproductive problems," he says.
Then smiles: "Don't marry a man who doesn't fart."