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C of I researchers examine bone health

Talking on a cell phone or listening to a personal music player while exercising seem as natural to most people as walking or breathing. Yet most of the dozens of electronic devices we use contain the heavy metal cadmium, the culprit in a variety of maladies if ingested. For the past decade, College of Idaho biology professor Dr. Sara Heggland and more than 40 of her students have studied how cadmium affects bone health and the onset of osteoporosis. Heggland said that better understanding how cadmium affects bone at the cellular level is crucial for doctors, scientists and public officials dealing with the health impacts of environmental toxins.

"People use cadmium every single day because it’s used in almost every electronic product out there,” Heggland said. “Those electronics eventually end up in landfills, and from there the cadmium can get into drinking water.”

Heggland and her C of I students – one of only a few research teams in the world studying cadmium toxicity and bone health – have already made important discoveries such as demonstrating that cadmium directly affects osteoblasts, the body’s bone-forming cells, by causing the cells to intentionally destroy themselves.

“In promoting the death of bone-forming cells, it therefore promotes the development of osteoporosis,” Heggland said.  She and her students are now studying the cell signals involved in that process, known as programmed cell death. 

The C of I research team also has determined that cadmium gets deposited in the extra-cellular matrix of bone rather than calcium, and is looking to answer what replacing calcium does to the strength of bone cells. In addition, C of I research students have begun examining whether estrogen is connected to the potency of the heavy metal since women are affected more severely by cadmium toxicity.

Shea Wright, a senior chemistry major who joined the research project as a fellow supported by the NIH Idaho INBRE (IDeA Network for Biomedical Research Excellence) program, has enjoyed participating in the ground-breaking research.

“It’s exciting to be learning something you wouldn’t be able to learn in a regular classroom,” said Wright, who is considering a career in either medicine or research. “Being involved in the research process is teaching me a lot about perseverance and problem-solving.”

INBRE Fellow Thao Ha, a junior biology major, said the research experience is benefiting her plans for a medical career.

“Medical students need to be able to work independently and they need to learn how to think critically,” Ha said. “Those are skills I’ve enhanced working on this project.”

Two trends that show no signs of reversing make the research by Wright, Ha and the rest of the C of I team particularly valuable. First, cadmium is being used in more products – from consumer electronics to children’s toys and jewelry – that will wind up in landfills.

Second, the population of the United States and the rest of the world is aging rapidly. Since osteoporosis affects the elderly most dramatically, figuring out how to combat cadmium’s bone-destroying afflictions would improve the quality of life for this growing age group.

“We hope this research is used to protect the public, minimize the amount of cadmium that is getting into the environment, and ultimately, to help people live healthier lives,” Heggland said.

Founded in 1891, The College of Idaho is the state’s oldest private liberal arts college. It has a century-old tradition of educating some of the most accomplished graduates in Idaho, including six Rhodes Scholars, three Marshall Scholars, and another ten Truman and Goldwater Scholars. The College is located on a beautiful campus in Caldwell, Idaho. Its distinctive PEAK curriculum challenges students to attain competencies in the four knowledge peaks of the humanities, natural sciences, social sciences and a professional field, enabling them to graduate with an academic major and three minors in four years. For more information on The College of Idaho, visit www.collegeofidaho.edu.