Toxic Environment - PulseResearch
April 25, 2017
Examining the role Saskatchewan lentils can play in treating chronic arsenic toxicity
Chronic arsenic toxicity, a condition caused by elevated levels of arsenic in the body due to drinking contaminated water or eating contaminated foods, has been estimated to affect more than 137 million people worldwide, according to 2007 research from the University of Cambridge. When contracted, the condition, also called arsenicosis, causes a variety of short and long-term health effects that can include heart and arterial diseases, cancer, hyperpigmentation of skin, diabetes, and even death.
However, it is thought that the effects of chronic arsenic toxicity can be either slowed down or reversed to a significant degree through a selenium (Se) rich diet and one researcher set out to test the role that Saskatchewan-grown lentils can play in treating the condition.
Dr. Judit Smits, a professor in the Department of Ecosystem and Public Health, Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, at the University of Calgary, led research that involved feeding lab rats that had been exposed to arsenic in water either Se-rich Saskatchewan-grown lentils or Se-deficient lentils from another region in North America. Dr. Smits was interested in exploring the benefits of using natural sources of Se-rich foods (such as lentils) instead of Se-enhanced manufactured diets.
“In lentils, the major form of selenium is selenomethionine, which is readily absorbed across the gut wall and retained in the body to contribute to antioxidant activity,” she says. “In manufactured foods, the selenium is generally added as selenite. This is absorbed reasonably well too, but according to some work, not as well as selenomethionine, and it is not retained in the body as well as selenomethionine,” says Dr. Smits.
The first part of Dr. Smits’ study found it was possible to reverse the health effects of arsenic toxicity with commercial diets fortified with selenium. “We found that in the biological responses we could measure, there was a significant benefit to the higher selenium diets in counteracting arsenic damage and body burdens of arsenic,” she says.
“The next step will be to do testing on humans who have been exposed to arsenic,” Dr. Smits says. “We are currently working on plans to achieve this, including applying for funding and identifying research partners in countries where chronic arsenic toxicity is a massive problem.”
These initial results are good news for lentil growers in Saskatchewan, who are fortunate to have unique soil quality on their side, allowing them to grow high quality lentil crops. “The high selenium content of Saskatchewan lentils is largely because of the good fortune of having farm land where an ancient seabed existed, and therefore the soil naturally contains good levels of selenium,” says Dr. Smits.
These initial results are also good news for the Canadian lentil industry as it seeks to build new and diverse agricultural export markets through unique research initiatives such as this one.
“If we can prove the health benefits of Saskatchewan lentils to counteract arsenic toxicity in affected human populations, lentil growers will have an additional and extremely valuable quality in their lentils that ought to give a market advantage,” Dr. Smits says.
SPG Investment: $233,923
Co-Funders: National Science and Engineering Research Council ($205,423)
Project Lead: Dr. Judit Smits, Department of Ecosystem and Public Health, Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, University of Calgary