Researchers have stumbled upon a surprise possible treatment for swelling of nerves in the spinal cord. It turns out that FD&C blue dye No. 1 bears certain key similarities to a compound used to treat nerve inflammation. Since there is no active immediate treatment for spinal cord injuries, and secondary inflammation often leads to long-term damage, this treatment holds great promise. The one side-effect observed: the rats’ skin turned blue.
In 2004, [neuroscientist Maiken Nedergaard of the University of Rochester Medical Center] and colleagues discovered that swelling around the cord is caused by the rapid release of ATP, the molecule that normally provides energy for the cell. Excessive amounts of ATP overstimulate nerve cells and cause them to die of metabolic stress. The researchers found that blocking an ATP receptor called P2X7 prevented much of the inflammation associated with spinal cord injury. But until now, they hadn’t identified a clinically useful drug that could block the receptor.
“We just had proof of principle,” Nedergaard said. “We didn’t have anything we could give to patients.” Then, while searching for chemicals with structures similar to the P2X7 receptor, the scientists came across FD&C blue dye No. 1, completely non-toxic and approved by the FDA in 1928.