Identifying arsenic biomarkers could protect vulnerable populations from arsenic toxicity

MSc student aims to identify products of arsenic in biological samples to better understand how people metabolized it differently.

By STEPHENY ZANI - 13 October 2020

What would you do if your main source of drinking water was the cause of your illness? For many decades people from Southeast Asia and other regions who rely on groundwater have faced serious health problems related to arsenic toxicity.

Jagdeesh Uppal, MSc student in the Department of Laboratory Medicine & Pathology at the University of Alberta, is working to understand how arsenic is metabolized in the human body and find biomarkers of arsenic toxicity. He intends to identify markers that make a population vulnerable to arsenic’s detrimental effects, opening the gates for preventative actions. Uppal received the 2020 Izaak Walton Killam award to support his research, which draws on urine samples from participants in Bangladesh. The project, conducted under the supervision of Chris Le, director of the Analytical and Environmental Toxicology Division in the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry, is an international collaboration with the University of Chicago.

Arsenic is naturally occurring, but high concentrations of arsenic in groundwater is a serious public health concern. It is found to be above the recommended threshold by the World Health Organization (WHO) in more than 50 countries, including India and Bangladesh. Human contamination typically occurs through the use of water for drinking and cooking.

Long-term exposure to high levels of arsenic is associated with severe consequences, such as cancer, cardiovascular diseases and skin lesions. According to Uppal, people react differently to arsenic toxicity, showing a range of clinical symptoms. In fact, for genetic reasons, populations exposed to large amounts of arsenic for many generations can metabolize it into less toxic forms.

"If we can characterize its metabolites in urine, it will enable us to identify and protect the health of people that are most susceptible to illnesses related to arsenic exposure,” says Uppal. “In addition, it will give us a better understanding about the relationship between susceptibility to arsenic toxicity and how it is metabolized.”

Although the arsenic-metabolizing capacity of several populations has already been characterized, Uppal believes it’s important to go a step further, finding and highlighting the derivatives of the process.

“Once the means to identify the more susceptible populations are in place, such as characterizing the type and amount of arsenic metabolites in their urine, we can mediate and prevent them from being exposed to large amounts of arsenic.” Uppal says.

Uppal, who was recently accepted into medical school at Queens University, appreciates how research contributes to better clinical care and is excited to incorporate research into his daily practice in the future.

Jagdeesh Uppal and his project are supported by the Killam Trusts, Alberta Innovates, Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, Canadian Institutes of Health Research, Alberta Health, John and Patricia Schlosser Environment scholarship and the Andrew Stewart Memorial Graduate Prize.