Calcium and Magnesium Levels in Atherosclerotic Tissue Samples: Influence of Gender and Diabetes – Blog Post #1

Our research study, “Calcium and Magnesium Levels in Atherosclerotic Tissue Samples: Influence of Gender and Diabetes,” will investigate the effect of gender and diabetes on cellular magnesium and calcium levels within atherosclerotic legions.  We will achieve this by comparing levels of these chemicals in atherosclerotic tissue samples of male and female diabetic and non-diabetic patients.


Atherosclerosis is a chronic cardiovascular disease characterized by the narrowing and hardening of arteries, secondary to the build-up of plaque.  Plaque consists of calcium, cholesterol, and fatty substances that have progressively deposited onto the arterial wall.  This accumulation triggers an ongoing inflammatory and immune response that attempts in vain to patch the legion, but instead enlarges and hardens it.  As a result, blood flow to distal organs becomes constricted or disrupted, and the risk for cardiovascular incident and stroke is increased.


Our experiments will measure magnesium and calcium specifically because of their purported effects on the pathogenesis of atherosclerosis. Magnesium is thought to combat atherosclerosis by minimizing cholesterol and triglyceride levels, while enhancing the health of the endothelial cells that line blood vessel walls.  On the other hand, calcium may aggravate atherosclerosis by precipitating (as calcium hydroxyapatite) onto plaque deposits on arterial walls.  Furthermore, a substitution in calcium hydroxyapatite’s hydroxyl moiety may stimulate the accumulation of cholesterol.


Established literature on atherosclerosis has been largely limited to the study of males, but recent evidence points to important differences between genders with respect to the manifestation of the disease.  Accordingly, we wish to study females in addition to males to determine if such a distinction exists.  Furthermore, since diabetes is thought to aggravate comorbid illnesses, we will investigate the effect of this comorbidity on magnesium and calcium levels as well.


A surgeon from a local NYC hospital has surgically excised plaque-laden tissues from the carotid arteries of atherosclerosis patients via a routine procedure known as an endarterectomy.  In turn, the samples were anonymized, categorized on the basis of gender and diabetic status, and provided to Dr. Upmacis with IRB consent.


Before we can begin our analytical examination into the chemistry of our samples, we must first break them down so they may be processed on a molecular level.  We are currently devising a protocol to do this.  Thus far, we have diced samples with a scalpel and attempted to dissolve them in hydrochloric acid, but they have proved to be particularly hardy and resistant to dissolution.  We were more successful with homogenization, however, and also plan to use sonication to break the samples down even further.


Once we have effectively liquefied our samples, we will evaluate their chemical composition via atomic absorption spectroscopy.  Atomic absorption spectroscopy is an analytical technique that produces a quantitative determination of chemical composition and provides useful information regarding the concentration of a particular element.  The instrument subjects a light spectrum to free atoms of the sample in its gaseous state.  Sample elements absorb this light in varying degrees.  In turn, information regarding the composition and concentration of the tested sample may be gleaned based on the relative degree of absorption.


We hope that the atomic absorption spectra will highlight important differences in the magnesium and calcium levels of atherosclerotic samples from patients of different gender and/or diabetic status.  I am eager to see if and how one condition ameliorates or exacerbates the presentation of another.  These effects are not abstract, but rather result in a tangible chemical profile.  They also underscore a deepening insight into the complex interrelationships that comprise human homeostasis.  Most importantly, it is our hope that understanding the chemistry behind atherosclerosis will enhance our insight into other risk factors.  This information in turn may light the way to better preventative awareness within the community.