See more of the story

Mayo Clinic researchers are probing everything from the intricacies of human genetics to the hot springs of Yellowstone National Park to understand and prevent kidney stones.

While doctors can offer surgeries and medications to treat or manage stones — lumps of mostly calcium that get stuck in the urinary tract and cause intense pain — they remain perplexed about why some patients suffer them more than others, and what causes them to emerge. That’s no small matter, considering that roughly 10 percent of the U.S. population suffers stones.

“They are painful and no one has ever said they would want another one,” said Dr. Nicholas Chia, a Mayo researcher.

One solution has been to review the trove of patient data from Mayo’s Rochester Epidemiology Project, a population-based study of the health of thousands of people in Minnesota and Wisconsin.

Evaluating kidney stone patients in that database between 1984 and 2017, researchers found that younger age, male gender, higher body mass index, pregnancy history, and family history of stones all were predictive. They also found that the size and location of stones in initial incidents predicted the severity of future attacks.

The collective data resulted in an online tool that doctors can use to predict patients’ future risks and motivate them to improve their odds through healthy changes in diet and activity, said Dr. John Lieske, one of the Mayo researchers.

Knowing more about their risk level could boost patients’ “enthusiasm for adopting dietary measures and/or starting drug regimens to prevent future attacks,” he said.

Other Mayo researchers are teaming up with a geologist at the University of Illinois to study similarities between the mineral formation of kidney stones and rock formations at Mammoth Hot Springs in Yellowstone. The salty water that emerges from the hot springs has some similarities to urine, and might interact with minerals and microbes in the same way to produce solid masses.

Researchers are looking for microbes that are common to the formation of both hot springs rocks and kidney stones. If successful, they could develop treatments to target those microbes and prevent stones from forming or growing.

Jeremy Olson • 612-673-7744