Lab Notes


    A recent study at Washington University School of Medicine has confirmed that breast cancer patients benefit from estrogen-lowering drugs before surgery, increasing the likelihood that they can undergo breast-conservation surgery (lumpectomy) instead of mastectomy. Patients in the study received aromatase inhibitors for 16 weeks before breast cancer surgery, and tumor size was monitored before and after the drug treatment. Patients were divided into three groups: marginal, mastectomy-only and inoperable, and at the conclusion of the 16-week therapy, they were reevaluated to determine the best surgical option. Results showed that 82 percent of women in the marginal group, 51 percent in the mastectomy-only group and 75 percent in the inoperable group had successful breast-conservation surgery instead of mastectomy. “Aromatase inhibitor therapy shrank the tumors in many of these women and improved surgical outcomes,” says study chair Dr. Matthew Ellis of the Siteman Cancer Center at Barnes-Jewish Hospital. Dr. Julie Margenthaler, assistant professor of surgery and a breast surgeon at the Siteman Center, was the  lead investigator.


    One in 20 children have hearing loss in one ear by the time they start school. When it comes to language use and comprehension, that loss can create serious challenges, according to a Washington University School of Medicine study of 74 children ages 6 to 12 with hearing loss in one ear. The hearing loss may go undetected, because children can appear to have normal hearing or are thought to be inattentive. Without treatment, they are at risk for speech and reading difficulties, according to lead author Dr. Judith Lieu. “On average, our study has shown that children with hearing loss in one ear have poorer oral language scores than children with hearing in both ears,” she notes. “Parents, educators and pediatricians shouldn’t assume that having hearing in one ear means children won’t need additional assistance.” Lieu says hearing loss in one ear can also magnify the effects of poverty and maternal illiteracy. Hearing loss that affects only one ear can be the result of abnormalities in the ear, head trauma or infections such as meningitis.



    A recent study by researchers at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center may help define the role of morphine in the human body, potentially alleviating pain and treating drug dependency. The study team discovered that mammals produce morphine naturally in their bodies, perhaps in the same way as morphine is produced in opium poppies, one of mankind’s oldest medicinal plants and the current commercial source of powerful analgesics. The research team, led by principal investigator Dr. Meinhart Zenk, injected mice with potential morphine precursors such as tetrahydropapaveroline (THP). Previous studies had shown that mice, as well as humans, excrete small amounts of morphine in urine, but researchers were uncertain about how the chemical was produced in the body. Results of the study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, confirmed that the mice had metabolized the THP into morphine. Scientists suspect morphine acts as a defense against predators, deadening pain in the injured enough to allow escape. “It’s possible that scientists could someday induce a person’s body to create a natural jolt of morphine that might prove less damaging than injection of the substance into the body,” says Zenk.


    Saint Louis University’s Center for Vaccine Development is conducting research on a vaccine to prevent dengue fever, a potentially lethal virus that affects an estimated 100 million people every year. Dengue virus is transmitted by mosquitoes that live in tropical areas, but these mosquitoes also have been associated with dengue outbreaks in Texas, Florida and Hawaii. In addition to threatening those who live in tropical areas, dengue is a risk to travelers, and is now more common than malaria among travelers in the Caribbean, South America and Asia. “About 3.6 billion people worldwide are at risk for dengue,” says Sarah George, a Saint Louis University professor and principal investigator. “Annually, more than 20,000 people die from severe dengue diseases, although no deaths have been reported in the United States from these outbreaks.” The clinical trial is the first research in humans of DENVax™, a dengue vaccine developed by Inviragen Inc., and SLU is the only site in the U.S. conducting the study.