Notebook

A National Institutes of Health panel on November 5 issued a consensus statement declaring there is clear evidence that acupuncture helps alleviate nausea from chemotherapy and anesthesia. The statement indicated the need for more and better research into how acupuncture works and acknowledged that some studies show the practice helps alleviate pain, while other studies show no conclusive effects. "There is a paucity of high-quality research assessing efficacy of acupuncture compared with place

Nov 24, 1997
The Scientist Staff

A National Institutes of Health panel on November 5 issued a consensus statement declaring there is clear evidence that acupuncture helps alleviate nausea from chemotherapy and anesthesia. The statement indicated the need for more and better research into how acupuncture works and acknowledged that some studies show the practice helps alleviate pain, while other studies show no conclusive effects. "There is a paucity of high-quality research assessing efficacy of acupuncture compared with placebo or sham acupuncture," says David J. Ramsey, president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore, and the panel's chairman. Traditional explanations for how acupuncture works say patterns of energy flow called Qi are necessary for optimal health. The panel recommends that researchers find explanations based in Western science, not Eastern belief, to validate this remedy used by an estimated million Americans. Methodological problems with "sham" acupuncture-treating controls by placing needles in the wrong spot-exist because the misplaced needles could still produce the release of endorphins or other chemicals. Wallace Sampson, a clinical professor of medicine at Yale University and the editor of a new journal, the Scientific Review of Alternative Medicine, criticizes the make-up of the 12-member panel. "This is not a consensus-it's a consensus of proponents." The panel also endorsed the practice even though it concluded that research has shown mixed results. "The best studies show no effect, the worst studies show effect," Sampson says, adding that, at best, existing studies show that acupuncture may be "a really good placebo." The consensus report is available at http://consensus.nih.gov.


COLOR SIGNS: The single pink signal shows the sample has only one copy of chromosome Y. Two copies would indicate Down syndrome, in the genetic screen developed by Vysis Inc. and recently approved by FDA.
The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on October 23 approved the first prenatal genetic test for Down syndrome and other chromosomal disorders resulting in birth defects and developmental disabilities. The test can provide results within 24 hours, while the standard method for detecting prenatal disorders, fetal karyotyping, requires seven to 10 days. The assay, developed by Vysis Inc. of Downers Grove, Ill., will be especially helpful to women 35 years old or older-the group with the highest risk of delivering Down syndrome babies. The 24-hour turnaround time should provide relief by delivering negative results quicker, says Christina J. Shasserre, Vysis product manager. The quicker turn-around time also will allow women who receive positive results more time to decide whether or not to terminate their pregnancies-especially crucial when women go for genetic screening after the first trimester. The test, like fetal karyotyping, uses cells from amniotic fluid. However, instead of analyzing the cultured cells, the assay marks the five chromosomal indicators for the birth disorders with fluorescent probes visible under a microscope. Extra copies of any of the chromosomes highlight a birth defect.



MATERNAL DRIVE: Placental lactogen combines in a hormone cocktail to prompt maternal behavior in rats, Robert Bridges of Tufts has discovered.
A hormone secreted by the placenta appears to be instrumental in prompting maternal behavior in rats, a Tufts University research team has discovered. Even a non-pregnant female rat that has never given birth can be induced to feed baby rats if the medial preoptic region of the female's brain is primed with a hormone called placental lactogen (R.S. Bridges et al., "Central lactogenic regulation of maternal behavior in female rats: steroid dependency, specificity of lactogenic action and relative potencies of lactogen and placental lactogen-1," Endocrinology, 138:756-63, 1997). Robert Bridges, a professor of biomedical sciences and assistant dean for research at the university's School of Veterinary Medicine, says of the recent study, "We were able to measure detectable amounts of placental lactogen in cerebrospinal fluid in rats in the second half of pregnancy." The researchers also determined that placental lactogen belongs to the same general family of hormones as prolactin, which is secreted by the pituitary gland and induces lactation. A cocktail of placental lactogen and prolactin and low levels of two steroidal hormones, progesterone and estradiol, was shown to prompt maternal behavior. These findings could have implications for treating farm animals such as pigs and sheep that sometimes demonstrate insufficient interest in their first litters. Bridges notes that placental lactogen also has been found in the cerebrospinal fluid of humans, which could mean his team's research might be helpful in treating postpartum depression. The work has been funded for four more years by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. "We'll try to get a better handle on the physiology," says Bridges, "looking at the relative contributions of the placental hormone as compared to its sister hormone, prolactin."


Drugs that treat schizophrenia by stimulating the dopaminergeic system also activate the neuroreceptor N- methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA), which, when understimulated, can prompt schizophrenia-like symptoms to arise. Now, an international research team has discovered the gene that encodes a protein that controls the NMDA receptor. The research was conducted at the University of California, Irvine, College of Medicine, in collaboration with scientists at the University of Pittsburgh and in Europe. The UC-Irvine team was led by Jay Gargus and George Chandy, both of whom are professors of human genetics and of physiology and biophysics, and by George Gutman, a professor of microbiology and molecular genetics. Working in a chromosomal region long thought to harbor genes that enhance the risk of mental illness, the scientists isolated a gene encoding a protein called a potassium ion channel, which regulates electrical activity. Overstimulation of the ion channel could shut down the NMDA receptors, thus enhancing the risk of schizophrenia. The researchers believe such overactivity might also elevate the risk of bipolar disorder. But the big surprise was their discovery that the gene encodes abnormally long stretches of the amino acid, polyglutamine. Repeat polyglutamine expansion has been shown to cause various neurodegenerative diseases and ataxias. "If you could develop a drug to block that channel, that would be a whole different class of drug," says Gargus, who stresses that more studies are necessary. The team's findings are scheduled for publication in the January 1998 issue of Molecular Psychiatry.



COMBINED CHALLENGE: Scientific, technical, management, and public service skills are needed to head the Federal Bureau of Investigation Laboratory, says new director Donald Kerr.
Physicist Donald Kerr, who headed the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico from 1979 to 1985, is the new director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation Laboratory in Washington, D.C. His selection, capping a nationwide search, was announced October 21. Kerr has held a number of senior positions in the Department of Energy, and after leaving Los Alamos, he worked as an executive in several private companies involved in science-oriented technology, manufacturing, and consulting. "It's a unique opportunity," he says of his return to the government sector, "a combination of some science and technical challenges, management challenges, and a public service component wrapped into one package." A major near-term goal is to oversee development of the FBI's new laboratory at Quantico, Va., to be completed in 2000. Kerr says facilities embedded in the estimated $130 million lab will permit enhanced training of local and state law enforcement authorities. Asked about his switch from the defense-oriented work of Los Alamos to the forensics of the FBI, he observes, "When I started at Los Alamos, it was only half defense, and some of the work we did was forensics for the FBI." Credited with transforming Los Alamos into a multidisciplinary facility, Kerr started the human genetics lab there and began early work on DNA sequencing. His background in nuclear nonproliferation and intelligence should be particularly helpful in his new post.


NERVE CASING: Image C shows little movement of Schwann cells (reddish-yellow) toward nerve fibers (white arrows) after three days soaking in a culture without IGF-1. Image B shows Schwann cells beginning to form a casing around nerve fibers after soaking in an IGF-1 culture for three days.
A team of University of Michigan researchers has used the insulin-like growth factor IGF-1 to stimulate the growth of myelin, the membrane-like sheath surrounding nerves. This is the first evidence scientists have that IGF-1 can promote the growth of myelin around peripheral nervous system neurons, according to Eva L. Feldman, the lead researcher and an associate professor of neurology at the University of Michigan Medical School. The discovery could yield potential treatments for peripheral neurodegenerative disorders like diabetic neuropathy if future animal and clinical trials prove successful, Feldman says. The team, which included Michigan research fellow Hsin-Lin Cheng, was able to remove neurons from newborn rats and strip the neurons of myelin. After soaking in an IGF-1 solution for two days, the stripped neurons had regrown myelin sheaths. Associated Press reports of the discovery generated false hopes for a new treatment for multiple sclerosis (ms), as the wire service failed to note that the as-yet-unpublished study demonstrated myelination only in peripheral neurons. "Our office has received over 300 calls," Feldman says. "The public was excited because our discovery had been transformed into a cure for MS by the press." But MS is a disease in which the immune system attacks and damages myelin in only the central nervous system, according to Arthur McMorris, a senior researcher at the Wistar Institute in Philadelphia. "While her discovery does not directly suggest an approach for treating MS, everything we can learn about mylenation gives us hints on how to possibly approach a cure," McMorris says.


The United States Supreme Court on October 14 declined to hear an appeal from Pamela A. Berge, whose $1.5 million false claims suit against the University of Alabama-Birmingham (UAB) was overturned earlier this year. By declining the appeal, the court upheld a May ruling by the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals that evidence was insufficient for a jury to have found UAB guilty of lying to secure grants. Berge, at the time a graduate student at Cornell University, alleged that UAB professors of pediatrics Sergio B. Stagno, Charles A. Alford, and Robert F. Pass used her research without citation in order to secure research funding. In reversing the May 1995 decision by the jury, the Circuit Court ruled that plagiarism of Berge's work never occurred and that her work was not viewed by the National Institutes of Health as necessary for securing and renewing the grants. Alexander T. Bok, Berge's attorney from the law firm of Dangel, Donlan, and Fine in Boston, urged the Supreme Court to overturn the earlier appeal as "the weighing of evidence is for the jury, not the court." Bok explains that appellate courts typically review disputes of law but will not consider the quality of evidence or disputes of fact for a given case. "We believe the great injustice to Berge was done by the Fourth Circuit Court," Bok says. "The appellate court simply countenanced a legal regime when it superseded the jury." Throughout the case, Stagno's laboratory continued to receive funding from NIH, which also refused to be a party with Berge in the false claims suit, according to Barbara Miskin, UAB's attorney from the law firm of Hogan and Hartson in Washington, D.C. Under the False Claims Act, "whistleblowers" are entitled to up to 30 percent of all funds recovered from fraudulent government contractors.


MIND OVER MATTER: Mike Maher coinvented a computer chip that combines silicon and rat neurons.
California Institute of Technology scientists have successfully mixed mind and matter with their hybrid neurochip. A research team headed by Jerome Pine, a professor of physics and astronomy at Caltech, transplanted rat neurons into tiny wells in silicon chips. When nourished, the neurons grew dendrites and an axon that extended outside of the well, forming synapses with neurons in nearby chips. Electrodes affixed to the chips allow easy monitoring and measuring of the activity of the neuron. Michael Maher, a coinventor of the chip with Pine and now a postdoctoral fellow at the University of California, San Diego, says the team will now attempt to demonstrate synaptic connectivity using arrays of neurochips. They also will attempt to learn how the network processes and stores information throughout its development. "We want to figure out how neural networks operate," Maher explains. "So far, theoretical and experimental investigations have failed to give us a basic understanding of what neural networks are doing and what the important parameters are." He hopes that any discoveries they make using the neurochip network will provide a foundation for understanding larger neural networks like mammalian brains. Pine and Maher have submitted a report describing the design process of the chip to Cellular Engineer.