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Zinc for Colds: In 1960s, This Bihar-Born Doctor First Revealed Its Benefits to Humans

Dr Ananda Prasad from Bihar pioneered the study of zinc deficiency and published over 300 papers and 15 books.

Zinc for Colds: In 1960s, This Bihar-Born Doctor First Revealed Its Benefits to Humans

We, in the 21st century, are facing the threat of multiple deadly diseases. Since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic different variants of the virus, types of fungi and other complications have made headlines.

While the race to develop a vaccine was one that was met with a lot of trepidation it was still an impressive feat for the human race.

So, it is still surprising to note how the billion-dollar pharmaceutical industry hasn’t yet found a complete cure for the common cold.

Granted, the worst side effects from the cold include runny nose, congestion and fever.

However, efforts to find a cure for the common cold have been underway, and several studies in recent years show that certain supplements containing zinc can help reduce the duration of its symptoms by 40 per cent.

This also depends on the amount of zinc in each dose and other supplements that are combined with it.

And we have Dr Ananda Prasad, a 94-year-old Indian origin doctor who specialised in the role of zinc in human metabolism, to thank for this discovery.

Discovering Zinc’s Potential

Born in 1928 in Bihar’s Buxar, Dr Ananda Prasad attended the Patna Medical College and graduated in 1951 with high distinction in physiology. Later, he moved to the United States and went on to pursue his doctorate from the University of Minnesota.

He was among the first medical graduates to move to the US.

In 1952, he went to St Paul’s Hospital, Dallas, Texas, for his residency training in pathology, accompanied by his wife, Dr Aryabala, who sought further training in obstetrics and gynaecology.

To pursue additional training in the US, he joined the University of Minnesota where he spent the next five years doing his PhD and getting trained to be a clinical scientist.

His research subjects were calcium and magnesium metabolism. This marked the beginning of his lifelong interest in the composition of various elements, including zinc.

Later in 1958, Dr Prasad moved to Iran to set up a teaching program in the Department of Medicine at the Nemazee Hospital in Shiraz. That’s where he started his research on zinc and discovered its deficiency in humans for the first time.

Growth retardation, immune dysfunctions, and cognitive impairment are major effects of zinc deficiency. In 1961, Dr Prasad published an article in the American Journal of Medicine suggesting for the first time that zinc deficiency accounts for human growth retardation.

Zinc has been studied for several years but not all the studies have signalled a benefit. Recently, a meta-analysis published by Harri Hemila at the University of Helsinki points out that the efficacy varies based on the dosage and composition of the lozenge used. The study also found that two different zinc compounds namely zinc acetate and zinc gluconate are both effective but no evidence suggests that increasing those doses leads to any greater efficacy.

“Studies reporting the duration and severity of cold symptoms suggest that zinc significantly reduced the overall duration and severity of common cold symptoms if the therapy was started within 24 hours of the onset of the cold,” notes one of Dr Prasad’s research papers.

Dr Ananda Prasad with the prestigious Mahidol Award from Thailand for his contributions in the field of zinc metabolism
Dr Ananda Prasad (middle) with the prestigious Mahidol Award from Thailand for his contributions in the field of zinc metabolism. (Photo credit: Wikimedia commons)

The Immunity Influence

After leaving Iran in 1961, he joined the Department of Biochemistry and Medicine of Vanderbilt University in the US where he decided to work on his speculation that zinc deficiency was prevalent in the Middle East and it was responsible for widespread growth retardation. With approval from the University, he started investigating zinc metabolism in growth‐retarded subjects.

By 1963, he joined the Wayne State University in Detroit as an assistant professor of medicine and also held the position as the Director of the Division of Haematology until 1984. There he tested his hypothesis by administering zinc to his growth-stunted patients in Egypt, but he couldn’t find it anywhere. “I couldn’t believe that a 19-year-old guy could gain over six inches in height,” Dr Prasad told the New York Times.

Some scientists even challenged his findings. But he continued with his research and documented how zinc influences immunity. Later in 1974, his research findings helped lead the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) to declare zinc an essential element.

Dr Prasad’s further research proved that zinc had an effect on immunity and made him think that it might help cure a common cold.

Later, he collaborated with a scientist at the University of Michigan to research its effect on the common cold. Most of the research was done on lozenges, which are solid dosage forms that are intended to be dissolved or disintegrated slowly in the mouth. They identified a set of participants who developed a common cold and gave them zinc lozenges. To their surprise, the analysis proved that zinc did shorten the common cold symptoms by about two or three days.

“Properly composed zinc gluconate lozenges may be as effective as zinc acetate lozenges. There is no evidence that zinc doses over 100 mg/day might lead to greater efficacy in the treatment of the common cold. Common cold patients may be encouraged to try zinc lozenges for treating their colds. The optimal lozenge composition and dosage scheme need to be investigated further,” notes Harri Hemila in his research conclusion.

It was Dr Prasad’s research that led to this revelation of zinc’s potential and ever since there have been several studies to decipher the impact of this element in human health and disease.

Pioneering the study of zinc deficiency, Dr Prasad has published over 300 papers and 15 books.

He was also the founding editor of two journals, American Journal of Haematology and Journal of Trace Elements in Experimental Medicine. He has received much recognition for his contributions including several awards and honours from different

Today, zinc is considered one of the essential minerals in our body like iron. It is involved in numerous aspects of cellular metabolism and plays an important role in immune function, protein synthesis, wound healing, DNA synthesis, and cell division. It also supports normal growth and development during pregnancy, childhood and adolescence and is required for a proper sense of taste and smell.


(Edited by Yoshita Rao)

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