Researchers Explore Potential Treatment for Fibrosis

The body’s ability to produce scar tissue is crucial in order to heal wounds. However, fibrosis is a condition in which scar tissue forms in otherwise healthy organs, or too much scar tissue is created during healing, causing damage.

Researchers at Saint Louis University are working to understand the causes of fibrosis and develop treatments. The study centers on a protein identified in the formation of fibrotic tissue, and scientists hope to find ways to prevent the protein from triggering excess tissue formation.

The research team, which published a paper on its work in the Nov. 10, 2013, issue of Nature Medicine, conducted animal studies in which lung and liver fibrosis were treated with compounds that suppress the trigger protein. The experimental treatment also lessened the severity of existing fibrosis, says Dr. David Griggs, director of biology at SLU’s Center for World Health and Medicine and an author of the paper. Research continues to explore appropriate dosages and the best ways to deliver the protein-suppressing compound.

Micro-LEDs Hold Promise for Treating Mental Disorders

Washington University researchers have developed minuscule LED devices that may someday be used to help target individual brain cells involved in serious mental disorders, such as depression and addiction. The micro-LEDs are part of a developing field known as optogenetics in which light-activated genes are inserted into the brain and then turned on and off via the LEDs in order to create specific neural responses.

For example, in experiments using mice, researchers used the micro-LEDs to cause certain neurons to release dopamine, a neurotransmitter related to feelings of pleasure. “Optogenetics allows us to zero in on specific populations of neurons and understand which ones are involved in complex behaviors,” says Dr. Michael Bruchas, assistant professor of anesthesiology. “What we learn from these studies will make it possible for us to target specific populations of brain cells that malfunction in depression, pain, addiction and other disorders.”

The micro-LEDs developed by Bruchas and his colleagues are thinner than a human hair and wireless. Once implanted, they can be used to mediate specific neurons’ activity without tethering the subject to a wired device. Work continues to improve the devices and enhance their capabilities.

Rosemary and Spearmint Extracts May Enhance Memory

Fans of supplements will be interested in new findings from Saint Louis University that indicate extracts of spearmint and rosemary may improve learning and memory.

“We found that these proprietary compounds reduce deficits caused by mild cognitive impairment, which can be a precursor to Alzheimer’s disease,” says Dr. Susan Farr, research professor of geriatrics. “This probably means eating spearmint and rosemary is good for you. However, our experiments were in an animal model, and I don’t know how much—or if any amount—of these herbs people would have to consume for learning and memory to improve. In other words, I’m not suggesting that people chew more gum at this point.”

The extracts are compounds made from antioxidants found in spearmint and rosemary. Mice that had age-related cognitive decline improved in some tasks after being given various doses of the extracts. Ongoing study is needed to determine effects in humans.

Endoscope Allows Physicians to Treat Gastrointestinal Issues Without Open Surgery

Some patients with gastrointestinal problems may avoid open surgery because physicians at Saint Louis University Hospital are using a surgical system that allows for repairs to be made via a thin tube inserted into the mouth and down the esophagus.

Using the endoscopic system, surgeons can treat gastrointestinal bleeds, bariatric problems and ulcers without traditional incisions and external suturing. The endoscope inserted into the stomach through the mouth is equipped with a tiny camera and instruments that allow surgeons to perform procedures by viewing images on a high-definition monitor.

The endoscopic procedure is outpatient and results in no external scarring. Other gastro-intestinal conditions can be treated in the same manner by inserting the endoscope through the rectum.

Washington University Receives Grant to Fund Ongoing AIDS Research

Although HIV and AIDS is no longer considered a conclusive death sentence, research continues into improved treatments for the disease and its complications. Earlier this year, the AIDS Clinical Trials Site at Washington University School of Medicine received a $4.9 million National Institutes of Health grant to continue such studies in collaboration with researchers at Vanderbilt University.

The funding supports the university’s work as part of the national AIDS Clinical Trials Group. Collaborative research under the group’s umbrella allows for many subjects to be recruited at sites across the country. The group has been instrumental in developing current treatments, and Washington University has been involved since 1988.

Researchers Study Drug Treatment to Reduce Sickle Cell Pain

Sickle cell disease, a condition that results in abnormal blood cells, causes acute pain and episodes requiring hospitalization when blood cells clump together and block small vessels. “The typical vaso-occlusive crisis puts patients in the hospital for three to five days on intravenous medications,” says Dr. William Ferguson, director of the division of pediatric hematology and oncology at Saint Louis University and a SLUCare pediatrician at SSM Cardinal Glennon Children’s Medical Center. “All we can do is give supportive care, such as pain killers, and wait for the crisis to run its course.”

Now SLU researchers are studying the use of ReoPro—a drug given to patients undergoing angioplasty to open blocked arteries—as a treatment for children and young adults who ex-perience painful sickle cell episodes. Ferguson and his colleagues hope the drug may help reduce the length of hospital stays for sickle cell crises.

ReoPro is approved to prevent clotting during angioplasty, but this is the first time the drug is being studied as a potential treatment for sickle cell disease.

Smoking Cessation Linked to Improved Mental Health

We know the many benefits of smoking cessation for our bodies. But quitting the habit also may improve mental health, according to a study by Washington University researchers that was published online in the journal Psychological Medicine earlier this year.

“Clinicians tend to treat the depression, alcohol dependence or drug problem first and allow patients to ‘self-medicate’ with cigarettes if necessary,” says Dr. Patricia Cavazos-Rehg, assistant professor of psychiatry and the study’s lead investigator. “The assumption is that psychiatric problems are more challenging to treat, and that quitting smoking may interfere with treatment.”

However, Cavazos-Rehg and her team found that reducing by half or completely quitting smoking was associated with a lower risk for depression and drug or alcohol addiction. “We don’t know if their mental health improves first and then they are more motivated to quit smoking, or if quitting smoking leads to an improvement in mental health,” Cavazos-Rehg says. “But either way, our findings show a strong link between quitting and a better psychiatric outlook.”

Innovative Eyeglasses Help Surgeons See Cancer Cells

Google has nothing on Washington University when it comes to creating advances in eyewear. Google Glass may provide a heads-up computing interface, but a new technology developed by Washington University researchers and being tested at Barnes-Jewish Hospital allows physicians to don special eyeglasses that reveal cancer cells via a visible blue glow.

By wearing the glasses during surgery, physicians can more easily see cancer cells and ensure that all are removed. “We’re in the early stages of this technology, and more development and testing will be done, but we’re certainly encouraged by the potential benefits to patients,” says Dr. Julie Margenthaler, a breast surgeon who was the first to use the glasses. “Imagine what it would mean if these glasses eliminated the need for follow-up surgery and the associated pain, inconvenience and anxiety.”

Currently, surgeons remove tumors along with a margin of surrounding tissue, and then await pathology results that indicate whether follow-up surgery is needed to expand the margin and remove additional tissue to ensure all malignant cells are removed. By being better able to see cancer cells during the initial operation, surgeons could more accurately remove all existing cancer, reducing the need for additional surgery.

Using the new technology, researchers inject the tumor with a commonly used contrast agent that attaches to cancer cells and creates the telltale blue glow when viewed through the head-mounted video display.

Researchers Prepare to Explore Potential Hepatitis B Drug Cures

Researchers at Saint Louis University are using funds from the National Institutes of Health to study potential cures for the hepatitis B virus. The research will build on work by Dr. John Tavis, professor of molecular microbiology and immunology, who discovered a way to measure and block a specific enzyme, preventing the virus from replicating.

Tavis’ findings may help lead to the discovery of a drug cure for hepatitis B, which currently can only be treated and managed as a chronic disease. Hepatitis B causes most cases of liver cancer, so a cure would significantly reduce liver cancer incidence.

Using the enzyme measurement tool Tavis developed, researchers will eventually introduce various drug therapies and track their effectiveness. However, Tavis is focused first on improving the measurement tool, making it faster and enhancing quality.

Research Shows Compound Reverses Alzheimer’s Symptoms in Mice

In the May issue of the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, Saint Louis University researchers reported a compound they developed restored memory, learning and appropriate behavior when tested in a mouse model of Alzheimer’s disease.

“It reversed learning and memory deficits, and brain inflammation in mice that are genetically engineered to model Alzheimer’s disease,” says Dr. Susan Farr, research professor of geriatrics and lead author of the study. “Our current findings suggest that the compound, which is called antisense oligonucleotide (OL-1), is a potential treatment for Alzheimer’s disease.”

Although the compound shows promise, it must pass toxicology tests before being introduced in experiments with human subjects.

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