Guinea pig nuclear scientist reveals stone age

Nuclear scientist Vladimir Levchenko has carbon-dated kidney stones for the first time and has discovered they form much earlier than once thought. Photo: Penny Stephens Vladimir Levchenko with one of the Dutch kidney stones he carbon-dated. Photo: Penny Stephens

Nuclear physicist Vladimir Levchenko arrived at hospital by ambulance with debilitating back pain. He suspected the agony was caused by a volleyball injury rather than the true culprit: a peppercorn-sized kidney stone.

Ever the scientist, Dr Levchenko had more questions than time to ask as he was being wheeled into theatre. Before the anaesthetic took hold he managed to quiz the surgeon on what caused kidney stones, how they formed and how long they took to grow.

The revelation that medical science had no idea prompted him to make one last request before going under – please could his kidney stone be saved so he could study it?

“I was curious, I wanted to know if I could do it,” Dr Levchenko said. “The scientist is a scientist even on the operating table.”

Back at work at the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation at Lucas Heights outside Sydney, Dr Levchenko set about carbon-dating his kidney stone.

It turned out to be the first time the experiment had been done anywhere in the world. The results were so revelatory, they attracted international attention and have set up new research projects and collaborations.

The results showed Dr Levchenko’s stone, small and slow-growing as it was, had started forming almost 18 years ago.

After failing to find Australian researchers working in the field and only a handful internationally, he contacted a Dutch research group led by urologist Dik Kok at the Erasmus Medical Centre in Rotterdam.

An enthusiastic Professor Kok sent Dr Levchenko two kidney stones, each the size of a $2 coin, from Dutch patients to be carbon-dated.

Though similar in size, the results painted a different picture of how the Dutch stones came to be, shedding new light on the growth cycle and longevity of kidney stones. One stone was dated at seven years old, while the other was 24 years old.

“After I passed the results onto my Dutch colleague, he became extremely excited,” Dr Levchenko said.

The fast-growing, younger stone turned out to be about 40 per cent phosphate. Interestingly, it belonged to a patient who regularly drank soft drinks – which contain phosphoric acid.

Meanwhile, the 24-year-old stone belonged to a patient who had a suffered a lower-back injury near the kidneys – intriguingly in a skiing accident which occurred 24 years ago.

“It is the first time that there has been a connection made between injury and the formation of a kidney stone,” Dr Levchenko said. “He was very excited because before that we didn’t know what triggered a kidney stone.”

The slow-growing stone also belonged to a patient who was more active, drank less alcohol and soft drink and ate less fast food.

The findings will be published in the journal, Radiocarbon, this month.

One of the most common medical conditions, kidney stones affect about one in 10 Australian men and one in 35 women.


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