Disrupting Crystal Growth through Molecular Recognition: Designer Therapies for Kidney Stone Prevention

Alexander G. Shtukenberg, Longqin Hu, Amrik Sahota, Bart Kahr, Michael D. Ward

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


ConspectusAberrant crystallization within the human body can lead to several disease states or adverse outcomes, yet much remains to be understood about the critical stages leading to these events, which can include crystal nucleation and growth, crystal aggregation, and the adhesion of crystals to cells. Kidney stones, which are aggregates of single crystals with physiological origins, are particularly illustrative of pathological crystallization, with 10% of the U.S. population experiencing at least one stone occurrence in their lifetimes. The human record of kidney stones is more than 2000 years old, as noted by Hippocrates in his renowned oath and much later by Robert Hooke in his treatise Micrographia. William Hyde Wollaston, who was a physician, chemist, physicist, and crystallographer, was fascinated with stones, leading him to discover an unusual stone that he described in 1810 as cystic oxide, later corrected to cystine. Despite this long history, however, a fundamental understanding of the stages of stone formation and the rational design of therapies for stone prevention have remained elusive.This Account reviews discoveries and advances from our laboratories that have unraveled the complex crystal growth mechanisms of l-cystine, which forms l-cystine kidney stones in at least 20 000 individuals in the U.S. alone. Although l-cystine stones affect fewer individuals than common calcium oxalate stones, they are usually larger, recur more frequently, and are more likely to cause chronic kidney disease. Real-time in situ atomic force microscopy (AFM) reveals that the crystal growth of hexagonal l-cystine is characterized by a complex mechanism in which six interlaced anisotropic spirals grow synchronously, emanating from a single screw dislocation to generate a micromorphology with the appearance of stacked hexagonal islands. In contrast, proximal heterochiral dislocations produce features that appear to be spirals but actually are closed loops, akin to a Frank-Read source. These unusual and aesthetic growth patterns can be explained by the coincidence of the dislocation Burgers vector and the crystallographic 61 screw axis. Inhibiting l-cystine crystal growth is key to preventing stone formation. Decades of studies of "tailor-made additives", which are imposter molecules that closely resemble the solute and bind to crystal faces through molecular recognition, have demonstrated their effects on crystal properties such as morphology and polymorphism. The ability to visualize crystal growth in real time by AFM enables quantitative measurements of step velocities and, by extension, the effect of prospective inhibitors on growth rates, which can then be used to deduce inhibition mechanisms. Investigations with a wide range of prospective inhibitors revealed the importance of precise molecular recognition for binding l-cystine imposters to crystal sites, which results in step pinning and the inhibition of step advancement as well as the growth of bulk crystals. Moreover, select inhibitors of crystal growth, measured in vitro, reduce or eliminate stone formation in knockout mouse models of cystinuria, promising a new pathway to l-cystine stone prevention. These observations have wide-ranging implications for the design of therapies based on tailor-made additives for diseases associated with aberrant crystallization, from disease-related stones to "xenostones"that form in vivo because of the crystallization of low-solubility therapeutic agents such as antiretroviral agents.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)516-525
Number of pages10
JournalAccounts of Chemical Research
Issue number4
StatePublished - Feb 15 2022


  • Animals
  • Crystallization
  • Cystine/chemistry
  • Cystinuria/complications
  • Kidney
  • Kidney Calculi/chemistry
  • Male
  • Mice

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Chemistry


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