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Come and Get Me, Copper

This metal is an embryo's best friend

THURSDAY, June 14, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- When most people think of copper, pennies and pots come first to mind. But you'll also find copper in your multivitamin, and new research suggests you couldn't have been born if your body didn't know how to use it.

"Mammals that can't acquire copper, including humans, will not thrive and will not make it through birth," said Dennis Thiele, professor of chemistry at the University of Michigan and co-author of a new study of fetal development. "Copper is absolutely essential."

The research may help scientists figure out why some miscarriages occur and possibly provide a clue to the causes of brain diseases like Alzheimer's, Thiele said.

Copper is one of a number of metals -- including iron and zinc -- that the body needs to function. Without copper, the body cannot even metabolize iron, Thiele said. And iron is a major factor in blood production.

"No matter how many iron supplements you take, if you don't get enough copper, the iron won't do you any good," he said.

Thiele writes about his research in a recent issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Using genetic engineering techniques, researchers designed mice that did not have genes that create copper "gatekeepers" in cells. The gatekeepers let copper into cells, where other proteins distribute it to where it is needed, Thiele said.

Mice that lack the gateway die in the mother's womb, he said. "Although we can't say for sure that a human who lacks this gateway would die, it's highly likely that there would be a miscarriage."

If a mouse has just one gatekeeper gene instead of the normal two, its brain will develop a copper imbalance, he said. "We're very excited about this. There has been a battery of scientific literature that suggests copper imbalances in the brain may be responsible for diseases like Alzheimer's and Lou Gehrig's disease." Alzheimer's is a disease marked by mental deterioration with generally little physical decay; Lou Gehrig's (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) attacks nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord, and the body deteriorates while the mind generally stays sound.

Copper imbalances are known to cause some diseases in humans, including one inherited disorder that affects boys and causes death by the age of 2 or 3, Thiele said.

The University of Michigan research will give scientists a better idea of how vital metals are to good health, said Joan Valentine, professor of chemistry and biochemistry at the University of California at Los Angeles.

"We're only beginning to appreciate how important many of them are," she said.

Besides Alzheimer's and Lou Gehrig's disease, metals may play a role in other neurological disorders like Parkinson's disease, she said. Biological problems involving metals may also cause birth defects.

"They could be associated with metals, but nobody knew to look [into that]," she said.

What To Do

While pregnant women are urged to take iron supplements, copper doesn't get as much press. Thiele suggests that women ask their doctors about taking copper supplements.

Copper-rich foods include oysters, red wine, chocolate, legumes and shellfish.

If you're curious about what copper does in your body, visit this fact sheet created by a British copper industry association.

About one in 30,000 people has Wilson's Disease, a rare disorder that causes copper poisoning. Read more about it at the Web site of the Wilson's Disease Association.

You also might want to read previous HealthDay articles on nutrition.

SOURCES: Interviews with Dennis Thiele, professor of chemistry, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor; and Joan Valentine, Ph.D., professor of chemistry and biochemistry, University of California at Los Angeles; June 5, 2001 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
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