Kidney stones are one of the most common urinary problems in the United States and are responsible for thousands of visits to the emergency room every year. This condition comes about when minerals and other substances in the kidneys come to together to form small clumps, or stones. If the stones remain in the kidneys themselves, a patient can have them for weeks, months or even years without symptoms and not even know that the stones have formed. However, if the stones become lodged in the ureters (which lead from the kidneys to the bladder) or the urethra (the tube through which people urinate), then a back-up of urine, inflammation and excruciating pain can result. Much research has gone into understanding more about what causes this problem and how it can be prevented, and a recent study has uncovered interesting evidence in regards to zinc.
What scientists discovered
In a nutshell, what scientists have recently uncovered is the fact that when levels of zinc in the body are high, these high levels can result in a greatly increased chance of kidney stone formation. Researchers believe that this is because zinc is possibly at the “core” of these stones and that other minerals, such as calcium oxalate, bind to the zinc to allow the stone to form to begin with. It was found that when zinc levels were high, oxalate levels in the urine (which can lead to stone formation) were high and when zinc levels dropped, oxalate levels in the urine dropped as well.
This study was led by UC San Francisco and its results appeared in PLOS ONE, a web-based academic journal to allow scientists to disseminate their knowledge more freely with one another. The lead author, Dr. Thomas Chi, who is also a professor at the UCSF Urology Department, noted that the point of this research was to better understand the root causes of kidney stone formation. This knowledge could then translate into better preventative measures being put into a patient’s plan of care in order to avoid this problem or stop it from happening again.
The research in context
This study of the link between zinc levels and kidney stone formation is based on earlier research done on this subject, but on fruit flies. Because fruit flies produce kidney stones in much the same way that humans do, earlier research from a partnership between the Buck Institute on Aging and the Children’s Hospital of Oakland Research Institute used them in this preliminary study. Looking at the interplay of zinc, calcium and other minerals that can contribute to kidney stone formation, they too drew the same conclusion: zinc as well as calcium is a factor in the formation of these stones.
This research is important, because up until this studies were done, the link between zinc and kidney stone formation was not really clear and it was mostly calcium which was blamed for this phenomenon. Knowing what they do now about the role of zinc in stone formation could lead to better and more effective patient education on lifestyle choices and other factors which can decrease the chances of kidney stone formation and generally support the health of the urinary tract for patients now and on in to the future.