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  • April 15, 2014

Lab Notes - Ladue News: Health-wellness

Lab Notes

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Posted: Thursday, June 13, 2013 12:00 pm

SLU RESEARCHERS SCREEN NEWBORNS FOR RARE GENETIC DISEASES

One in 25,000 babies born has a serious genetic disorder that, if untreated, shortens life expectancy to only 10 to 20 years. Now, thanks to a $2.5 million National Institutes of Health grant, Saint Louis University researchers are using routine infant blood samples to screen for the disorders.

Known as MPS (mucopolysaccharidoses) disorders, the genetic abnormalities affect both physical and mental capabilities. Most children are not diagnosed until they are 4 to 5 years old, when irreversible damage already has occurred. “If we were able to identify newborns with MPS disorders and begin treatment immediately, though, we could slow or even stop the progression of the disease, greatly improving their quality of life and possibly prolonging it,” says Dr. Adriana Montaño, an associate research professor of pediatrics at SLU and principal investigator of the study.

Using 200,000 newborn blood samples for the pilot study, the researchers hope to perfect a simple screening method that eventually can be included in the battery of standard newborn health screenings. The blood tests will flag babies at high risk for further testing.

CANCER PATIENTS MAY DECREASE STRESS THROUGH MUSIC

Music soothes the savage beast—and the anxious patient. That’s the theory being tested at Saint Louis University Cancer Center.

“We can see that some of our cancer patients who are undergoing treatment are showing signs of stress because their blood pressure is higher, and respiration rate and pulse is faster than normal. Our goal is to see if music can help bring those vital signs into a more normal range,” says Crystal Weaver, SLU Cancer Center’s music therapist and a study co-investigator.

Weaver notes that unlike anti-anxiety medications, music has no negative side effects or potential drug interactions and is an inexpensive, accessible resource. The SLU research team will follow three distinct groups: one will have no music during treatment, another will have live music performed during chemotherapy, and a third will receive music therapy while in hospital or exam rooms. Physiological and psychological responses—before during and after treatment—will be noted.

The SLU Cancer Center is the only cancer center in the area to have a full-time music therapist on staff and the first to establish a partnership with the St. Louis Symphony.

NEW IMPLANT MONITORS HEART RHYTHM

Using a new implantable device, Saint Louis University cardiologists are able to capture continuous electrocardiogram (ECG) readings for up to three years. “This allows us to confirm or rule out an abnormal heart rhythm more accurately than other tests,” says Dr. Scott Ferreira, a cardiac electrophysiologist at the Center for Comprehensive Cardiovascular Care at Saint Louis University Hospital and a SLUCare physician.

Commonly used external monitors may not capture infrequent arrhythmias, only monitor patients for 30 days and are cumbersome to wear. The implantable device is small and unobtrusive and can help physicians determine the cause of fainting spells or strokes that cannot be attributed to a specific cause.

In the case of stroke, patients may have undiagnosed atrial fibrillation, a condition in which blood pools in the heart and may form clots that are then carried to the brain, causing stroke. “This gives us the tool to pick up atrial fibrillation we didn’t have in the past,” says Ferreira. “We want to catch this before there’s another stroke that could be debilitating.”

PROCEDURE HELPS PREVENT STROKE IN PATIENTS WITH ATRIAL FIBRILLATION

The rapid, irregular heartbeat characteristic of atrial fibrillation (AFib), which affects about 6 million adults in the United States, is known to increase risk of heart failure and stroke. Now, for the first time in Missouri, AFib patients can reduce their stroke risk through a new procedure.

A team of cardiac electrophysiologists—physicians specializing in electrical activity and the electrical pathways of the heart—and interventional cardiologists at Mercy Hospital St. Louis perform a non-surgical procedure using sutures to tie off a left atrial appendage (LAA), which is the source of blood clots leading to stroke in patients with atrial fibrillation (AFib).

“This procedure has the potential to save many lives,” says Dr. Anthony Sonn, a Mercy cardiologist. “AFib patients who can’t be on blood thinners to prevent stroke risk now have an option. Before this procedure, they would be on an aspirin a day and take their chances.”

DIABETES DRUG FOUND SAFE, EFFECTIVE FOR HIV PATIENTS

People who have HIV may experience secondary health issues related to their illness and its treatment. Diabetes is one such concern. Until recently, medications to control diabetes and the health problems caused by it, such as heart disease, were not considered safe for use in HIV patients due to potential effects on the immune system. But researchers at Washington University School of Medicine found that a drug used to treat Type 2 diabetes appears to be safe for use in those with HIV.

“In our small study, the drug seems to be safe,” says senior investigator Dr. Kevin Yarasheski. “Now, it needs to be tested in people who are HIV positive and have metabolic problems to see whether it can reduce their likelihood of developing diabetes.” The research appeared in the February issue of the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism.

“The fear was that if we gave HIV patients this drug, it could alter their already compromised immune systems,” says Yarasheski, a professor of medicine, of cell biology and physiology and of physical therapy. “But the results of our study suggest that doesn’t happen.”

LOCAL RESEARCHER STUDIES ROLE OF BITTER MELON EXTRACT IN CANCER TREATMENT

Chinese and Indian cuisine often includes bitter melon, a fruit used in curries and other dishes. And the extract of bitter melon has long been used as a folk therapy to treat a wide range of ailments, from stomach disorders to psoriasis and diabetes. Now, a researcher at Saint Louis University is studying the extract’s effect on head and neck cancer cells in hope of discovering whether the alternative remedy can prevent the cancer’s spread.

Dr. Ratna Ray, a professor of pathology, had noted in a laboratory setting that bitter melon extract prevented breast cancer cells’ growth, although the extract has not been studied as a breast cancer treatment in humans.

“We have pretty good indications that bitter melon extract works in cancer cell lines to halt the growth,” Ray says. “I think it might be effective to treat solid tumors, and our (research) will help us to get pre-clinical data to show whether something that looks promising in fighting breast cancer could work in other cancers.” Ray’s animal studies may pave the way for trials of bitter melon extract in human cancer patients.

CANCER DRUGS MAY HELP PROTECT TROOPS FROM BIOLOGICAL WARFARE

In seeking to protect American troops from potential biological weapons, the U.S. Defense Threat Reduction Agency asked Dr. Mark Buller, professor of molecular microbiology and immunology at Saint Louis University, for help.

Buller is studying the effects of compounds in two oral cancer medications, Gleevec and Tasigna, as potential preventive treatments for the monkeypox virus. “The overall focus of this contract is to see which viruses would be susceptible and succumb to the medications, and which would not,” Buller says. “The drugs we are studying already are licensed, which means there are fewer regulatory hurdles for approval for a different use.”

Monkeypox is one of a class of illnesses known as ‘orthopoxviruses,’ which could be weaponized. “(The government) soon realized that they can’t make unique anti-viral medications and vaccines for every potential weapon of mass destruction, and now are developing broad-spectrum anti-infectives that would be effective against many pathogens,” Buller says. Gleevec and Tasigna have been shown to inhibit replication of at least three distinct viruses.

NEW DRUG MAY HELP QUELL ANXIETY

Generalized anxiety disorder affects about 3 percent of American adults, decreasing quality of life and productivity. Researchers at Saint Louis University are part of a multi-center study seeking to learn whether an investigational drug works to quell constant anxiety.

Under the leadership of Dr. George Grossberg, professor of psychiatry at SLU and principal investigator, participants will take one of two daily doses of the investigational product or placebo. The effectiveness and safety of the investigational drug will be evaluated through eight clinical visits during the course of 10 weeks. SLU researchers hope to enroll at least 10 participants for the trial. To learn more about the study and inclusion criteria, contact Susan Brown at 977-4818 and reference IRB number 22482.

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