Kidney Stones Dissolve and Regrow Just Like Geological Rocks

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Kidney stones are comparable to geological phenomena, according to researchers. Getty Images

Kidney stones are made up of dissolvable layers akin to sedimentary rocks, according to research that could transform how the painful condition is treated.

As many as 10 percent of the global population have kidney stones: a condition commonly associated with diabetes, hypertension and obesity. Most stones are made of calcium oxalate, a mineral scientists have long believed is insoluble in the kidney, according to the authors of the study published in the journal Scientific Reports. As such, current treatments for kidney stones include waiting for the blockage to pass—a painful process—or invasive surgery.

To investigate how kidney stones form, researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign collected 50 kidney stone pieces from six Mayo Clinic patients who underwent surgery to remove kidney stones. They then employed techniques more commonly associated with geological study. This enabled the team to create almost psychedelic images which revealed the layers which make up the pebble-like pieces of material.

These images helped the scientists uncover how crystals of calcium oxalate stick together to form a core around which sheets of crystals and organic matter stack up.

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Fluorescence micrograph of a human kidney stone from the Mayo Clinic. Image provided by Mayandi Sivaguru, Jessica Saw from Bruce Fouke Lab, Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology, U. of I.
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Fluorescence micrograph of a human kidney stone from the Mayo Clinic. Mayandi Sivaguru, Jessica Saw from Bruce Fouke Lab, Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology, U. of I.

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Dr. Bruce Fouke, professor of geology and microbiology at the University of Illinois, told Newsweek his team's analysis indicates that "instead of being homogeneous lumps that simply grow, kidney stones are a dynamic minute-by-minute record of kidney health and function that has been formed by ongoing crystal growth and crystal dissolution."

"This identifies an entirely new focus of interventions that might make it possible to fully dissolve stones inside the kidney, as strategy previously thought to be impossible," he said.

The team was "amazed" to find kidney stones grow similarly to rock deposits found in coral reefs, hot-springs, subsurface oil and gas fields, Roman aqueducts and many other natural settings.

"This suggests that universal processes of biomineralization have been harnessed by nature in virtually every environment on Earth and potentially other planets. Therefore, insights gained from the study of human kidney stones will enhance our understanding of how these mineralization processes work in many many other environments."

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A human kidney stone from Mayo Clinic. Mayandi Sivaguru, Jessica Saw from Bruce Fouke Lab, Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology, U. of I.

Kidney stones can range in size from a grain of sand to a golf ball in rare cases. In some cases, these yellowish or brownish pebbles can travel through the urinary tract without a person known. But if a stone stops urine from passing out the body, it can trigger bleeding and intense pain.

Other symptoms of kidney stones include hematuria, where the urine turns a pink or red color, a constant urge to pee; painful urine; or being unable to pass liquids. Cloudy or foul-smelling urine is another indication a person has kidney stones.

How a doctor treats a kidney stone patients depends on the size and location of the stone. Currently used treatments range from shock wave lithotripsy, where the stones are broken down, to surgery.

According to the Department of Health, drinking enough water each day is the best way to prevent kidney stones.

This article has been updated with comment from Professor Bruce Fouke.