Professor's work builds heavy metals research in Uruguay

University Park, Pa. — Most scientists see members of their research team on a daily basis, but not Kasia Kordas. Kordas, an assistant professor of nutritional sciences at Penn State, has always been interested in working internationally and helping other institutions improve their own research programs. For four years she has been building up a research program in Montevideo, Uruguay, and the majority of her research takes place there today. Stationed at the Catholic University of Uruguay, researchers in Kordas’ lab study the effect of iron deficiency and lead toxicity on behavioral and cognitive development in children.

Although iron and lead have had a major impact on the lives of people in Uruguay, very little research has been done in this area. Kordas wanted to change this, so she assembled an interdisciplinary team that pulls together researchers from chemistry, toxicology and psychology.

The research examines the impact of iron and lead in 6- and 7-year-old children from low-income areas of Montevideo. This age range is crucial, said Kordas.

“At this age, children will be transitioning to a formal learning environment, and their cognitive and behavioral deficits will really become noticeable and affect their learning and interactions with peers and adults other than their family.”

Both lead and iron can impact cognition -- too little iron or too much lead, and IQ, attention and perceptual abilities suffer. This is exactly the type of problem they’re trying to prevent in Uruguayan children.

Several practices have put people in Uruguay in contact with potentially toxic amounts of lead. These include the use of leaded gasoline until 2004; the number of people working in industrial jobs in Montevideo; and the “cottage industry” of cable burning, battery recycling, and metal recycling, which often happens in backyard workshops.

Another similarity between lead and iron is that they are absorbed into the intestines by a common transporter, which moves molecules into and out of the intestines.

“There is no biological need for lead in humans, so lead is really taking advantage and sneaking into the body by using the iron transporter,” said Kordas.

Kordas is particularly interested in knowing if the negative effects become exponentially worse when people have both iron deficiency and lead toxicity. She is in the observatory stage now, assessing the extent to which cognition is impaired, and finding out what can be done to improve the situation.

The project spawned out of work Kordas had done as a postdoctoral researcher at Cornell University. One of her colleagues studied lead exposure in Uruguay, and this paralleled Kordas’ thesis research, which focused on ways to lower lead levels using nutrients. To date, she has completed two studies with her colleagues at the Catholic University of Uruguay. Her third study, which received a grant in 2009 through the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and the John E. Fogarty International Center for Advanced Study in the Health Sciences, is laying the groundwork to perform more expansive research in this area.

Part of the grant is furnishing the research office in Uruguay with computers, desks, freezers and other research tools. And some purchases, such as certain cognitive assessment tools, will be donated to the university’s library after the research is finished, so that students around the university can use them.

Kordas’ vision is one of a long-term collaboration in which her colleagues in Uruguay work with her as opposed to for her. “It’s important to me,” she says, “that they become independent researchers in their own right. That is one factor that will help this collaboration succeed, and it will benefit them the most.”

“This research will provide our community with a better knowledge of the impact and the implications of lead contamination in individual development, especially in children,” said Ariel Cuadro, academic vice rector at the Catholic University of Uruguay. “With this project, we hope that our local authorities can become aware of the importance of defining policies and intervention strategies in this topic.”

“It’s a true partnership with my colleagues in Uruguay,” said Kordas. “As we do more, they want to learn more. Together, we’re becoming versed and proficient in these areas of research.”

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Last Updated November 18, 2010