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Thursday, March 14, 2013

Clinical atomic spectroscopy in finding trace elements

Determining the link between trace metals and human disease
opening artUnderstanding the effects of trace metals on human health is as complex as it is fascinating. We know that too low or too high of a concentration of trace elements in our diet can affect our quality of life. Equally, industrial-based metallic contamination of the air, soil, and water supplies can have a dramatic impact on our well-being. The toxic effect of lead, particularly on young children, is well documented, but is it possible to pinpoint the source of the lead poisoning? The movie Erin Brokovich alerted us all to the dangers of hexavalent chromium (Cr VI) in drinking water, but how many in the audience realized that chromium metal is necessary for metabolizing carbohydrates and fats? Selenium, which is found in many vegetables including garlic and onions, has important antioxidant properties, but do we know why some selenium compounds are essential but others are toxic? Clearly, these are complex questions that must be answered to fully understand the role of trace elements in the mechanisms of human diseases.

Atomic Spectroscopy
The development of analytical instrumentation over the past 30–40 years has allowed us not only to detect trace metals at the parts per quadrillion (ppq) level, but also to know its valency state, biomolecular form, elemental species, and isotopic structure. We take for granted all of the powerful and automated analytical tools we have at our disposal to carry out trace elemental studies on clinical and environmental samples. Accurate analysis at trace levels, however, was not always so easy. As recently as the early 1960s, trace elemental determinations were predominantly carried out by traditional wet chemical methods such as volumetric, gravimetric, or colorimetric assays. It wasn’t until the development of atomic spectroscopic (AS) techniques, in the early to mid-1960s, that the clinical community realized that they had a highly sensitive and diverse trace element technique that could be automated. Every time there was a major development in AS, trace element detection capability, sample throughput, and automation dramatically improved (1). There is no question that developments and recent breakthroughs in atomic spectroscopy have directly affected our understanding of the way trace metals interact with the human body.