Advancing the Science

Mayo Clinic Medical Science Blog – an eclectic collection of research- and research education-related stories: feature stories, mini news bites, learning opportunities, profiles and more from Mayo Clinic.

September 25, 2018

Can geology upend decades of medical wisdom about kidney stones?

By Advancing the Science contributor

Cross section of a kidney stone. Image provided by UIUC.

Article by Alex Generous

Like stones formed in nature, kidney stones show signs of being partially dissolved and remade.  Implication: there may be a way to remove kidney stones without surgery or passing them in urine.

An unlikely collaboration between a geologist at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and researchers at Mayo Clinic has overturned physicians’ long-held assumptions about the nature of kidney stones. Physicians believed kidney stones could not be dissolved, and so did not pursue developing a non-surgical treatment.

With the publication of this study Scientific Reports, the race has now begun to identify the stone-dissolving process in the kidney so that physicians can develop a treatment.

A Geologist Turns Towards Kidneys

Bruce Fouke, Ph.D. , is a geologist who studies microbes in rock formations from ancient coral reefs to Roman aqueducts to hot springs. After giving a talk at Mayo Clinic, he was recruited by John Lieske, M.D., to look at patients’ kidney stones.

When asked what he thought of working with his Mayo-based colleagues, Dr. Fouke said, “In my career I don’t know that I’ve had a more exciting, inspiring, and insightful collaboration.”

Dr. Fouke applied his geology expertise to examine stones extracted from Mayo Clinic patients. His group then performed an extensive analysis of very thin layers of the kidney stones with several high-powered super-resolution microscopy techniques.

By carefully examining the composition of the kidney stones, they were able to show that a kidney stone does not continuously grow like previously thought. Instead, the minerals of the stone show evidence of dissolving and reforming.

Different layers are formed by the process, similar to the stratification of stones and fossils that Dr. Fouke had previously studied. In fact, the layers appear to capture information about what is happening in the kidney in the same way that fossils from different time periods are trapped in different layers of rocks. In the future, these layers of information could be used to find what has happened in an individual patient’s kidney, giving clues and context for physicians to administer personalized medicine.

Collaboration Creates a Productive Research Environment

Images provided by UIUC.

The collaboration was made possible through an annual meeting of the Mayo Clinic and University of Illinois Alliance for Technology-Based Healthcare, which was created to explore such out-of-the-box ideas by introducing researchers from diverse fields of study to each other.

According to Michael Romero, Ph.D., a fellow researcher on the project, “this study would not have been possible without the Alliance, the O’Brien Urology Research Center at Mayo, and the special research conditions here.”

In this case, Dr. Fouke had never even considered that his research could be used to advance the field of kidney research, but Dr. Lieske realized that Dr. Fouke’s experience could be a valuable contribution to kidney science.

“I entered the project knowing nothing,” Dr. Fouke admitted, “Dr. Lieske and Romero taught me the basics of nephrology. They took me from zero to good.”

“You wouldn’t think to give geologists patients’ samples,” said Dr. Romero, “but they have skills and techniques we don’t have in biomedical sciences. “

Who did the work?

As an additional connection, a current medical student at the Mayo Clinic School of Medicine, Jessica Saw, was one the two main drivers of the project. Through the special relationship of Mayo Clinic and the University of Illinois, she is on leave from the medical school to pursue a Ph.D. at the University of Illinois in Dr. Fouke’s lab. The collaboration between these two powerhouse institutions allowed her to perform research at a unique stage in her career.

For the future, all of the collaborators intend to continue working together to further study what they can learn by applying geology to the inside of the human body.


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Tags: Findings, Innovations, Jessica Saw, John Lieske, kidney stones, Michael Romero, nephrology, News, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, urology

Interesting! I've struggled with frequent kidney stones for about 10 years now (passed 45 and have had 3 surgeries to remove many more). Nothing I've tried has ever stopped the formation of them, nor dissolved them. Water pills have slowed it somewhat, but that also has led to dangerous potassium levels which I've had to address by taking copious amounts of potassium. If y'all need someone to study, I'm willing.

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