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Research Zooms in on Zinc
By Marcia Wood
March 28, 2002
Investigations of zinc--an essential
nutrient--may yield a new way to test an individual's ability to use this
mineral. The diagnostic assay that research geneticist Liping Huang envisions
would measure the amount of zinc-related genetic material that an individual
produces. Huang is with the Agricultural Research Services
Western Human Nutrition Research
Center at Davis, Calif.
Ideally, the test would require only a small sample of blood, and could be
easily administered in a physician's office, according to Huang. In addition,
the test would have a fast turn-around, yielding complete results before the
patient's brief office visit was over.
Huang is focusing on genetic material called messenger RNA or mRNA. In
particular, shes looking at whether the availability of zinc influences
the levels of certain mRNA. The human body uses the information in this mRNA to
make what are known as zinc transporter proteins. These proteins shuttle zinc
from the foods that we eat into the cells that need it. For example, Huang's
work with ZnT4 suggests that this zinc transporter protein aids with storage of
zinc in the prostate gland. That might help protect against prostate cancer.
According to Huang, measuring levels of the zinc-transport mRNA is a good
approach to assess the amount of zinc transporter proteins. The method most
commonly employed today to check body levels of zinc isn't sensitive enough to
detect a mild deficiency. In the United States, mild zinc deficiency may exist
among otherwise healthy infants, toddlers, preschool children, pregnant and
lactating women, and seniors, according to Huang.
In addition to physicians working with individual patients, nutrition
researchers interested in the nutrient needs of Americans nationwide could use
the test. Findings could help update national dietary guidelines for daily zinc
intake--from food or supplements--for different age groups.
Huang's research is described in greater detail in the
March 2002 issue of
Agricultural Research magazine.
ARS is the U.S. Department of
Agriculture's chief scientific research agency.