NO, NO, NO!
This is the first in a series of columns dealing either
substantially or peripherally with science, scientists, technology,
technologists or, to be honest, anything that strikes my fancy.
The first question you might have is "Who is this Bortrum
fellow?" Permit me to introduce myself. First, I am "elderly",
71 years old to be exact. Readers over 65, were you as
dismayed as I was to find in your Social Security literature the
official definition of "elderly" as being 65 or older? You
Boomers in the audience may be closer than you think to this
Second, you might question my educational background to
decide whether or not to trust anything I say regarding
scientific subjects. Let me assure you that I have a high school
diploma, from Mechanicsburg High School in Pennsylvania,
awarded to me just five years ago at age 66. It''s true! Some of
us are just slow learners. Now that I''ve established my
academic credentials, I should warn you that you won''t find the
name Allen Bortrum in the annals of Mechanicsburg High
School. Indeed, I confess right off the bat that I am using a
nom de plume. Why? Am I ashamed of my true name or do I
have something to hide? Nothing so scandalous as to get me
impeached, I can say with confidence. Then, again, Brian
would comment that nothing seems to get anybody impeached
and convicted these days! Actually the reason for using a nom
de plume is that, ever since I took a semester of French at
Dickinson College, I have been fascinated by the sound of the
term and always hoped to employ this device myself. Now,
Brian Trumbore has given me this chance.
This bit on aging is relevant to the scientific topic for today. I
popped into this world shortly after Christmas in 1927, a
banner year in which the pop-up toaster was invented,
Lindbergh flew the Atlantic and sex hormones were
discovered. Sex itself, of course, was discovered considerably
earlier. Growing up in the 30''s and 40''s, any words describing
virtually any aspects of sexual activity were frowned upon for
public discourse and curse words and scatological terms were
reserved for expressions of severe disgust, pain, anger or
contempt. Indeed, I can remember the shock to the movie-
going public when Clark Gable in "Gone With the Wind"
uttered the line, "Frankly, my dear, I don''t give a damn."
Now the whole gamut of such words seem a part of the
working vocabulary of even the typical elementary school kid.
We even see on TV a former presidential candidate and charter
member of the "Greatest Generation" discussing the problem of
erectile dysfunction and, by inference, promoting the benefits
of Viagra in overcoming this problem. On the other hand, this
presidential candidate''s successful opponent is publicly chided
for having just the opposite problem. Is it possible that in both
cases the origin of the problem lies in having too much or too
little of a simple molecule, namely NO? You will recall that
we all live in an atmosphere consisting of nitrogen (N) and
oxygen (O) and we shouldn''t be surprised that the compound
NO exists. Indeed, millions of dollars have been spent in
efforts to reduce NO and other emissions from automobiles to
minimize greenhouse effects.
What is surprising is the role played by NO in regulating our
bodily functions. A recent issue of Chemistry, a publication of
the American Chemical Society, contains an article titled
"Science Says "Yes" to NO". The gist of the article is that
scientists, after much skepticism concerning early work in the
field, are concluding that NO, an even simpler molecule than
H2O, plays an extremely important role in the human body.
Among its functions is control of the dilation of blood vessels
and therein lies its relation to the problems of our two
candidates. It is believed that the effect of Viagra is to increase
the amount of NO in the penis, thus dilating the blood vessels
and allowing more blood to flow into the penis and promote
the solution to the problem of ED. One can only speculate
whether the opposite of ED (OOED) can result from an excess
of this simple molecule and that the solution is to say "No" to
It is now believed that the well-known effect of nitroglycerine
in relieving the pain of angina is to release NO into the
bloodstream. In this case, NO dilates clogged blood vessels,
allowing the blood to flow more freely and lessen the strain on
the heart. An interesting sidebar to this story concerns Alfred
Nobel, inventor of dynamite and founder of the Nobel Prize.
His recipe for making dynamite involved mixing nitroglycerine
with an appropriate chemical back in the 1890''s. When his
doctor suggested that Nobel take nitroglycerine to relieve his
own angina, Nobel refused, thinking the doctor was crazy to
suggest such a remedy. His reluctance is certainly
understandable! It is only fitting that three of the early workers
who demonstrated the importance of NO shared Mr. Nobel''s
prize of nearly a million dollars last year.
Other roles attributed to NO include regulation of blood
pressure, causing migraine headaches (a counter to OOED),
controlling actions of body orifices, helping the immune
system fight infections, carrying messages between nerve cells
and being linked to memory, sleep, pain and depression.
Unfortunately, NO can be a bad actor under the wrong
conditions, possibly promoting brain damage in certain types
of strokes, Lou Gehrig''s disease, Alzheimer''s disease, etc. Free
NO lasts only a second or so in the body and must rely on other
compounds to carry it from one place to another. In 1992,
Science magazine named NO "Molecule of the Year". With
future work revealing its effects and ways to promote or inhibit
its release in selected sites in the body, NO could well become
the "Molecule of the Millenium"!
Getting back to Viagra and NO, there have been warnings
about its use by men with certain physical problems, one being
high blood pressure. By this time, perhaps 100-200 or so men
have died who were using Viagra if reports in the press are
correct. How many of these would have died without taking
Viagra is unknown and a controlled study with placebos would
not be practical and probably not ethical to boot. We might
speculate that taking a Viagra pill releases the NO more
generally, not just in the penile vicinity. Hence, dilating other
blood vessels and lowering blood pressure as the blood vessels
expand. If this lowering reinforces the effect of other
medication taken to lower blood pressure, it might not be
surprising that in some cases the pressure would go too low
and fainting or even death could result. The old saw, "But what
a way to go!", has to be evaluated on an individual basis!
There promises to be more on NO in the future.
Allen F. Bortrum