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Chicago's Latest Medical Research

Preliminary results of a feasibility study have shown that electrical stimulation might help stroke patients regain greater use of their hands and arms.

By ERIK JOHNSON

New Hope for Stroke Survivors

Preliminary results of a feasibility study have shown that electrical stimulation might help stroke patients regain greater use of their hands and arms. Also called motor cortex stimulation, electrical stimulation may be both safe and effective, according to Robert Levy, M.D., Ph.D., a neurosurgeon at Northwestern Memorial Hospital.

"It is our hope that by stimulating the surface of the brain we can permanently reverse paralysis and rekindle patients' function, returning them to their normal lifestyle," says Dr. Levy, who is leading the study, which is being conducted in tandem with the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago.

Strokes are the most common cause of disability in the United States. Of the 700,000 strokes each year in this country, between 150,000 and 250,000 result in severe and permanent disability. Doctors believe that the electrical charges help in one of two ways--either by stimulating the growth of new nerve fibers in the area of the brain affected by stroke, or by helping enable other areas of the brain to take over lost functions.

Investigational Vaccine for Advanced Prostate Cancer

APC8015 (Provenge?) might help men with advanced prostate cancer by stimulating their bodies' natural defenses, according to researchers at Oncology Specialists, S.C, located at Advocate Lutheran General Hospital. A clinical research trial of the immunotherapy vaccine explores how it uses a patient's own immune cells to fight against prostate cancer.

"APC8015 is designed to stimulate the immune system to attack cells that express prostatic acid phosphatase (PAP) a protein expressed on approximately 95 percent of prostate cancer cells," says Chadi Nabhan, M.D., hematology/oncology, who is conducting the trial. Rush University Medical Center has also begun a study of this experimental vaccine for prostate cancer.

Possible Cure for Diabetes

Replacing defective pancreatic cells with healthy insulin-producing cells from a donor could hold answers in the fight to cure diabetes. An experimental islet cell transplant in a diabetic patient, one of only a handful of such procedures ever performed in Chicago, was the first in a clinical trial at University of Illinois at Chicago. Dr. Jose Oberholzer, director of cell and pancreas transplant, launched his five-year commitment to develop a functional cure for diabetes, with the assistance of an international team of scientists he's assembled, all intent on making islet transplantation a viable option for diabetics.

Functioning islets would rid patients of the need to regularly inject insulin, a hormone that helps the body use glucose for energy.

New Method to Treat Depression

Repeated short bursts of energy to stimulate nerve cells in the brain, known as Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS), is being tested by psychiatrists at Rush University Medical Center as a method to treat major depression.

Producing the same amount of magnetic energy as a standard MRI machine, TMS creates an electric field that researchers believe causes positive changes in mood. Performed without anesthesia, TMS does not cause memory loss. Depression affects more than 18 million adults every year, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

Marine Sponge Leads Researchers to Immune System Regulator

An Okinawan sea sponge may hold answers that will help boost the body's defenses against cancer, according to an international research team based at the University of Chicago.

The researchers provide evidence that a sugary lipid known as iGb3 plays a key role in regulating the response of natural killer T (NKT) cells, a component of the immune system that aids in preventing cancer, fighting infections and perhaps triggering or avoiding autoimmune diseases, according to an article in Science Express, the online early-publication version of the journal Science.

Discovered less than a decade ago, NKT cells are unusual because they target lipids, often bound to carbohydrates, rather than proteins. When presented with a lipid that may signal a threat, they pump out chemical signals such as interferon-gamma and interleukin-4, which tell other components of the immune system to rid the body of these invaders.

"Until now we had no idea what activated NKT cells except for one curious compound, a glycosphingolipid derived from a marine sponge," said study author Albert Bendelac, "but once we learned that this compound could prevent the spread of cancer in mice, a lot of people became very interested."

Possible Vaccine for Deadliest Form of Skin Cancer

A patient's own tumor and immune cells may be the components of a vaccine for advanced malignant melanoma, according to researchers at Loyola University Medical Center.

"The idea behind the vaccine is to manipulate the immune system to fight cancer, an innovative approach for treating this type of skin cancer," said Dr. Joseph Clark, co-principal investigator of the study.

By combining the patient's tumor with the dendritic cells (a special type of white blood cells) researchers hope to produce a "designer"vaccine that specifically targets the patient's cancer. They believe that by including the patient's tumor cells, the body will be tricked into thinking that the molecule is a foreign substance, thus learning to attack cancer cells containing this molecule.

Gene Linked to Hypertension

Researchers at the University of Chicago have discovered genetic evidence to support the sodium-retention hypothesis--a controversial 30-year-old theory that the high rate of hypertension in certain ethnic groups is caused, in part, by an inherited tendency to retain salt.

In an article in the December issue of the American Journal of Human Genetics, the researchers showed that the frequency of one version of a gene that plays a crucial role in salt retention correlates with distance from the equator. Populations that live in hot, humid climates near the equator tend to have the normal version of that gene, which produces a very effective protein. Populations adapted to cooler climates tend to have a mutant gene that codes for a completely dysfunctional protein.

"This could change the way we look for disease genes,"said study author Anna Di Rienzo, PhD. "Historically, we have searched for mutations, altered or damaged versions of genes that cause rare disorders, like cystic fibrosis or phenylketonuria. Now, we are starting to look for common genes that may have been beneficial in an environment of scarcity, but have become harmful in a world of plenty. In the modern setting, it may often be the genes that aren't damaged that predispose to disease, such as the "thrifty genes" associated with Type 2 diabetes.

Solar Cell Implant May Restore Some Sight for the Blind

Ophthalmologists at Rush University Medical Center implanted a 2mm artificial silicon retina (ASR) microchip in the eyes of five patients suffering from retinitis pigmentosa (RP). The implants are designed for people with retinal diseases such as macular degeneration and retinitis pigmentosa, which cause blindness and vision impairment in about 10 million Americans. More than one million of these people are legally blind.

The ASR chip contains approximately 5,000 microscopic solar cells that convert light into electrical impulses. The purpose of the chip is to replace damaged photoreceptors, the "light-sensing" cells of the eye, which normally convert light into electrical signals within the retina.

Published: April 01, 2005
Issue: Spring 2005