MEDICAL NEWS TIPS: NOVEMBER 1996

November 1996
Media Contact: names, phone numbers and e-mail addresses are listed below each individual story

Listed below are story ideas from The Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions. To pursue any of these stories, call the contact person listed.

GENETIC DETECTIVES TRACK HUNDREDS OF FAMILIES TO FIND KILLER GENE

A Hopkins research team is tracing the prostate cancer history of hundreds of families across the United States in the hope of finding the gene that causes the disease or makes it more virulent. Using linkage analysis, the study of inheritance patterns to show that genetics play a role in a particular disease, the team already has found strong evidence that genes are involved in at least some cases of prostate cancer. This is especially true in the early-onset form of the cancer, which strikes men in their 40s. Prostate cancer normally affects men in their 50s and beyond.

For media inquiries only, contact Marc Kusinitz at (410) 955-8665 or mkusinitz@welchlink.welch.jhu.edu.

MAD SCIENTISTS DESIGN THE "CUTTING-EDGE" OF SURGICAL TOOLS

When conventional surgical tools or existing technology won't do the trick, physicians at Hopkins turn to a team of MAD (Microsurgical Advanced Design) scientists for unique, custom-designed instruments and devices. It often can take years for a new medical device to move from the drawing board to the surgical suite. But at the MAD labs, new instruments can be designed on computer, fabricated on computer-controlled machinery, and be in the surgeon's hands within weeks. One current MAD project involves multiple-electrode arrays that directly stimulate retinal cells to restore a primitive form of vision to totally blind patients. Another project, already in use at Hopkins, is a voice-activated computer that frees operating room nurses from performing distracting tasks like adjusting the speed of cutting blades or suction devices.

For media inquiries only, contact Marc Kusinitz at (410) 955-8665 or mkusinitz@welchlink.welch.jhu.edu.

BLOOD TEST USED FOR DETECTING AN INHERITED HEART ATTACK RISK FACTOR

Hopkins medical researchers are working to develop a simpler blood test for identifying a risk factor for blood clotting that may be linked to heart attacks. On the surface of platelets (cells that help blood to clot), Hopkins scientists recently discovered a protein abnormality that may promote the formation of too many clots, which then plug arteries narrowed by fatty deposits. The abnormality, which may occur in up to 20 percent of people, currently is detected by a special molecular blood test available only at Hopkins. The Hopkins team hopes to develop a test that can be available for routine use.

For media inquiries only, contact John Cramer (410) 955-1534 or jcramer@welchlink.welch.jhu.edu.

CURE MAY BE WORSE THAN THE DISEASE

A surgical laser commonly used to repair damaged knee joints may cause hidden cell damage that worsens the injury in the long term. Orthopedic surgeons currently use the arthroscopic pulsed holmium:YAG laser to repair a wide range of knee-joint injuries, especially in athletes, because the laser cuts tissue cleanly and causes blood clotting at the same time. But research with animals showed that the laser's energy killed or damaged more surrounding normal cells than previously suspected, creating a cellular dead zone that may cause the cartilage to fail eventually.

For media inquiries only, contact John Cramer (410) 955-1534 or jcramer@welchlink.welch.jhu.edu.

NATURAL SUBSTANCE MAY HEAL INJURED NERVES

A natural antioxidant called deferoxamine may limit compression damage in peripheral nerves and speed recovery, a Hopkins animal study shows. Scientists compressed and released the sciatic nerve in rats to stop and restart blood flow through the nerve. Rats given deferoxamine had three times less nerve damage and recovered more quickly than control animals. The antioxidant also has been shown to reduce damage from stopping and restarting blood flow in other organs and tissues, including the heart, skeletal muscle and spinal cord.

For media inquiries only, contact John Cramer (410) 955-1534 or jcramer@welchlink.welch.jhu.edu.

SHARK CHEMICAL MAY FIGHT HUMAN BRAIN TUMORS

A hormone-like chemical found in dogfish sharks may help fight brain cancer by stopping growth of new blood vessels that nourish the tumors, Hopkins animal studies suggest. Squalamine, a chemical concentrated in the shark's liver, reduced by up to 83 percent the growth rate of blood vessel cells from humans, cows, rabbits and rats. In rabbits with eye tumors, time-release capsules containing squalamine slowed the growth rate of new blood vessels by up to 43 percent. The chemical did not affect the tumor cells themselves or nearby healthy cells.

For media inquiries only, contact John Cramer (410) 955-1534 or jcramer@welchlink.welch.jhu.edu.

BEATING THE "BIOCHEMICAL LOTTERY" OF DRUG DEVELOPMENT

If the search for new drugs can be likened to a lottery, a Hopkins researcher has found a way to increase the odds of winning. Instead of buying tickets one by one and hoping for a winner, the researcher discovered how to test billions of leads simultaneously. The result may be a straighter, shorter path to the winning combination. The scientist helped develop a new technique, called random peptide display, that quickly generates billions of tiny, random protein pieces and tests their ability to bind to a target molecule. Researchers at Hopkins and a California research company recently applied the technique to the NMDA glutamate receptor, an opening on the surface of many nerve cells that is believed to play an important role in stroke damage. They found several peptides that bind to the receptor, and the first one tested, Mag-1.5, closed the receptor. Mag-1.5's characteristics could help researchers define important traits in potential stroke treatment drugs. And, understanding how Mag-1.5 binds to the receptor could help scientists understand how it can be turned off.

For media inquiries only, contact Michael Purdy (410) 955-8725 or mpurdy@welchlink.welch.jhu.edu.

HEART TRANSPLANTS: NEW PROBLEMS SURFACE

With nearly 90 percent of all heart transplant patients surviving more than one year after their transplant, a new and serious problem is emerging -- accelerated arterioscleroses, or hardening and narrowing of the arteries, in the transplanted hearts. It has become the major cause of morbidity and mortality in heart transplant patients. The only treatment now available is a new heart transplant. While scientists are not sure of the reasons for this phenomenon, they suspect infections, side effects of anti-rejection drugs, transplant rejection, or incompatibility between the donor and the recipient. But the answer may come soon. A Hopkins pathologist has organized a multidisciplinary collaboration of 40 basic and clinical Hopkins researchers to investigate the problem and develop new treatments.

For media inquiries only, contact Michael Purdy (410) 955-8725 or mpurdy@welchlink.welch.jhu.edu.

HIGH-TECH TOOL DIAGNOSES COMMON EYE DISEASES

A team of Hopkins physicists and clinicians used physics principles to develop a sophisticated instrument that can help physicians diagnose and follow up common eye diseases such as diabetic retinopathy and glaucoma. Called the Retinal Thickness Analyzer, the instrument measures the thickness of the retina from digital images of optical cross sections generated by the intersection of a weak laser beam with the retina, yielding a three-dimensional topographic map of retinal thickness. The instrument is sensitive enough to alert physicians to a developing problem, help them determine the optimal treatment, and assess the effectiveness of the therapy. The new approach also promises to reduce the costs of managing common ocular diseases.

For media inquiries only, contact Marc Kusinitz at (410) 955-8665 or mkusinitz@welchlink.welch.jhu.edu.

RESEARCHERS CLOSING IN ON SINGLE GENETIC LINK TO DIFFERENT SYNDROMES

Researchers at the Johns Hopkins Children's Center are coming closer to unraveling the mystery of a group of proteins known as fibroblast growth factor receptors (FGFR) whose mutations cause genetic errors responsible for several devastating conditions in children, ranging from skeletal dwarfism to facial-disfiguring syndromes and skin disorders. Recently, the researchers discovered the ninth disorder so far adopted into this family of mutations.

For media inquiries only, contact Debbie Bangledorf (410) 223-1731or dbangle@welchlink.welch.jhu.edu.

ESTROGEN-CANCER LINK FOUND

Hopkins researchers have identified a gene that changes estrogen into a form that may contribute to DNA damage, resulting in cancer. The gene, P4501B1, plays a role in endocrine regulation and the toxicity of estrogens and appears to activate a variety of environmental carcinogens. The gene's identification may help explain some causes of breast and uterine cancers, as scientists have associated the carcinogenicity of estrogens with their role as the activator of the estrogen receptor, the group of proteins that regulates cellular growth and differentiation in estrogen-responsive tissues. Because women are living longer and are exposed to estrogen earlier, there is increased risk that something may go wrong in the process of estrogen regulation.

For media inquiries only, contact Sharon Rippey (410) 955-6878 or srippey@welchlink.welch.jhu.edu.


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