Vanadium contamination in combination with consumption of sugary drinks causes severe damage in several organs, especially in the endocrine pancreas and kidney, according to an investigation by Teresa Fortoul and Adriana Gonzalez Villalba, researchers at the Department of Cell and Tissue Biology of the Faculty of Medicine, at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM)

Since 2013, the UNAM researchers in collaboration with undergraduate and graduate students study metabolic alterations caused by the combined effect of these factors in mouse models.

In a study conducted a few years ago, where lung fragments of people who lived in Mexico City in the 50’s and 80’s were analyzed and compared, Fortoul found that the concentration of metals such as vanadium in these anatomical structures increased over time, as a result of the increasing burning of fuels derived from petroleum.

The current research emerged from a basic question: what factors make the population more vulnerable to metals contained such fuels?

These factors include childhood and old age, i.e. children and the elderly are most vulnerable. But also metabolic problems that appear with certain diseases like diabetes have an influence,” said Gonzalez Villalba, who did his doctoral thesis on the effects of vanadium on health.

This chemical element is present in crude oil and despite refining processes, remains in fossil fuels like gasoline. In the case of Mexico City, because of its altitude and the incomplete combustion of engines, the particles with vanadium attached are released to the atmosphere.

We have observed that, due to the hypoglycemic effect of this metal, the activity of insulin and glucagon –important hormones for glucose regulation– are compromised both in blood plasma and within the islets of Langerhans, pancreas structures responsible for producing them,” said Juan Albarran, a Master’s degree student in Experimental Biology.

In addition, the researchers observed that vanadium itself, and especially in combination with the consumption of sugary drinks cause alterations in both lipid profile and blood glucose.

As regards the kidney, many published articles have raised the controversy whether sugary drinks by themselves affect it or not. Fortoul and colleagues say that, at least in the kind of mouse they are working with, consumption of sugary drinks over eight weeks causes kidney impairment.

In addition, they noticed other major alterations when these drinks are combined with vanadium; for example, oxidative stress in cells of renal tubules (subsequently, some of these cells die and others lose certain important structures to function properly).

By analyzing the urine and kidney cuts, we saw that the mouse had damage. There are people who suffer from renal impairment, but they do not know why; and based on the results of our work, the combination of air pollution with sugary drinks can be considered as a possible factor for the onset of these alterations,” added Gonzalez Villalba.

As part of the study, Raida Valencia, medical degree student, analyzes the hippocampus, a structure of central nervous system essential in memory and learning processes.

Hippocampal neurons contain dendritic spines which act as synapse. It was known that they are altered with exposure to vanadium, and now we learn that the combined effect of vanadium and sugary drinks makes their numbers decrease, which could affect memory and learning processes. Then, those who are exposed to this and other risk factors may be more susceptible to a neurodegenerative disease in the future,” Valencia said.

Finally, Fortoul said that if the metabolic disorder represented by childhood obesity is added to the fact that children of Mexico City live immersed in a polluted environment, it is likely that in the short or medium term many of them have problems memory and learning.