Renal physiologist Clintoria Williams, an assistant professor at Wright State University, made national and international headlines when her research linking zinc deficiency to high blood pressure was published by the American Journal of Physiology.
Publication of the Williams-led research led to online articles by Science Daily, Medical News Today, Cardiovascular Business, The Health Site and other media outlets.
“My goal right now is to bring awareness that zinc deficiency can contribute to high blood pressure and should be monitored,” said Williams, an assistant professor in the Boonshoft School of Medicine and the College of Science and Mathematics as well as director of the Small Animal Physiology (SAP) Core.
High blood pressure, or hypertension, can increase the risk of serious health problems, including heart attack and stroke. Zinc, a trace element highly concentrated in the pancreas, helps the immune system fight off invading bacteria and viruses.
“There are populations who have lower zinc in their diet that have a higher prevalence of hypertension,” said Williams. “So literature was out there pointing in the direction that zinc deficiency may be contributing to hypertension, but no one directly investigated it.”
Williams led a study in which a small group of mice was fed a zinc-deficient diet and then a zinc-rich diet. Once the animals’ zinc reached adequate levels, their blood pressure began to drop.
“I wanted to know if you give a mouse a zinc-deficient diet, will it develop hypertension? And my findings said yes,” she said. “It’s because zinc deficiency causes your kidneys to be damaged. It forces the kidneys to re-uptake sodium. And with the re-uptake in sodium you get an increase in blood pressure.”
People get zinc through their diet, with red meat offering the highest intake of zinc.
“What makes someone zinc deficient is they are either not getting enough of it in their diet, or they have a disease that causes their intestines not to absorb it, or their kidneys are not holding on to the zinc,” she said.
She said taking zinc supplements to counter zinc deficiency is not the answer because taking too much zinc may also contribute to high blood pressure.
Williams developed a passion for science at a young age. Growing up in Alabama and Georgia, she was raised by her mother, who worked as a nurse. As a young girl, Williams wanted to become a physician.
“I would line my dolls up against the wall and do an examination,” she recalled.
Her classmates all wanted to be in the same science group as Williams.
“I just had a grasp of science. I was able to understand it and be able to communicate it,” she said.
After graduating from Jefferson Davis High School in Montgomery, Alabama, Williams enrolled at Clark Atlanta University in Atlanta in the pre-med program. She quickly found that she had a passion for research.
“It was there that I got exposed to science and research that changed it for me,” she said. “It was a physiology class. I liked the fact that we could understand from a cellular, molecular level all the way up to whole person.”
After one of her professors allowed her to do research in his lab, she landed an internship at the Atlanta Waterworks System, where she worked in its microbiology department. She took on a research project that resulted in her presenting her results at an international meeting.
“I got bitten by the bug of the other part of science — the communication part,” she said.
After earning her bachelor’s degree in science at Clark Atlanta, Williams went to graduate school at the University of Alabama in Birmingham, where she majored in cellular molecular physiology and began studying the relationship of zinc to diabetes.
One of her major findings was that when insulin is released from the pancreas, so is zinc, which is used to communicate back to the pancreas about how much insulin has been released.
“So it’s a regulatory mechanism,” she said.
The finding was a big win for the young graduate student, and Williams was elated.
“You always have to do a happy dance and celebrate when things go right,” she said.
After graduating with her Ph.D. in cellular and molecular physiology in 2008, Williams took a postdoctoral position at Emory University in Atlanta to study diabetes and then a second post-doc to study how diabetes affects the kidneys. She later became an assistant professor of physiology and began to look at how zinc controls high blood pressure and how zinc deficiency contributes to kidney damage. Diabetes, a leading cause of kidney failure, is a disease in which blood sugar levels are too high because the body is not making insulin, which helps the sugar get into the cells. Zinc, which is highly concentrated in the pancreas, where insulin is produced, helps provide natural blood sugar control.
In 2018, Williams joined the faculty at Wright State.
“I knew here I would get what I needed to be successful,” she said. “I felt that the infrastructure — not only within the department but also within the institution — would be nurturing. And it didn’t hurt to know that a lot of the leadership positions were held by women. So it gave me a path to see myself in a position of leadership.”
Williams’ next research project will investigate whether adding zinc to the diet will slow down the progression of high blood pressure and preserve the kidney function.