Copper As Killer
Copper As Killer
Tiny amounts of copper are found in many of the foods we eat, and are essential to good health. Yet for people born with Wilson's disease, a genetic disorder that leads to an overload of the element in the body's organs, even copper in foods can kill.
Wilson's disease prevents the body from excreting those portions of the metallic element it doesn't need. The resulting buildup, usually diagnosed in the teenage years, is toxic. Talking, swallowing, and even walking can become difficult. Often patients experience severe insomnia, a loss of the ability to concentrate and depression. Some contemplate suicide.
Doctors can successfully treat Wilson's by prescribing drugs to remove excessive copper from the bloodstream -- an intervention that is effective if the disorder is diagnosed early.
But drug therapy is less than perfect. D-Pencillamine, the most commonly prescribed treatment, removes copper but produces hydrogen peroxide in the process. The hydrogen peroxide, in turn, sets in motion a chain of events that can lead to cellular damage in the lining of blood and lymph vessels. In addition, Wilson's patients typically must take Pencillamine over long terms, a necessity which too often results in neurological difficulties, fever, rashes, joint pain and other problems.
Help may be on the way. Kattesh Katti, professor of radiology and physics and a senior research scientist at the MU Research Reactor, and Raghu Kannan, MU research assistant professor of radiology, recently announced development of a drug with the potential to rid both the bloodstream and the liver of dangerous copper accumulations.
The drug, called MU-TAM, arose out of the pair's research into the structure of water. It is what chemists call an "amphiphile," a molecule with both hydrophobic, or water-repelling, and hydrophilic, or water-loving, qualities.
"The hydrophobic portion of this drug delivers the medicine to the liver to rid it of the excess copper," Katti says. "The water-loving, or hydrophilic, portion then carries excess copper out of the liver through the urine."
Initial trials, conducted with Stan Casteel, a professor of veterinary medicine, confirmed the drug's potential. Katti hopes next to patent his discovery, and then to secure an industrial sponsor to support human trials.
If all goes well, he says, the MU-TAM may be available to patients in as few as three years.