Cool Science

Genetic mutation may increase risk of pancreatic cancer in females

Dr. Chris Pin

Pancreatic cancer is a devastating disease that’s often diagnosed very late. Researchers from Lawson and Western University have found that mutation of a gene called ATRX may lead to increased risk of developing pancreatitis and pancreatic cancer in females. Led by Dr. Chris Pin, the team discovered through preclinical trials that deleting the gene in females increased susceptibility to pancreatic damage.

When comparing results to human samples from the International Cancer Genome Consortium database, 19 per cent of patients carried a mutation within the ATRX gene and 70 per cent of them were female. While not all of the mutations found in human samples would lead to increased susceptibility, they warrant further examination. This marked the first time a potential sex-specific genetic risk factor for pancreatic cancer has been identified.

Using technology to diagnose psychiatric disorders

Psychiatric disorders like major depressive disorder (MDD), bipolar disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are often difficult to diagnose. Two research teams at Lawson have used technology and brain imaging to better classify psychiatric illness in patients, showing promise as tools for early diagnosis.

One study developed an artificial intelligence algorithm that analyzes brain scans to better identify illness in patients with a complex mood disorder and help predict their response to medication. The algorithm correctly classified research participants with a known diagnosis with 92.4 per cent accuracy. The other study combined brain imaging and machine learning to classify with 92 per cent accuracy whether individuals had PTSD, and if it was the dissociative subtype.

Probiotics for respiratory tract infections could save Canada nearly $100 million a year

Respiratory tract infections are highly contagious infections of the sinus, throat or airways, including influenza or ‘the flu.’ There is growing evidence that probiotics can reduce the risk of respiratory tract infections and lower their frequency, as well as reduce the duration of infection, absences from work, and antibiotic use.

Researchers from Lawson, Western University, Laval University and Utrecht University examined the potential clinical and economic impacts of using probiotics for respiratory tract infections in Canada. They found regular probiotic use could eliminate between 573,000 to 2.3 million days per year of respiratory tract infections, resulting in fewer sick days and antibiotic prescriptions. When accounting for productivity losses due to illness, it could save nearly $100 million a year.

Synthetic surfactant could ease breathing for patients with lung disease and injury

Dr. Rudd Veldhuizen

Human lungs are coated with a substance called surfactant which allows us to breathe easily. When this substance is missing or depleted, breathing becomes difficult. Currently, surfactant is taken from animals like cows, then purified and sterilized for use in humans. In a new study, Lawson Scientist Dr. Rudd Veldhuizen collaborated with Dr. Annelise Barron at Stanford University to develop and test a new synthetic surfactant. The synthetic surfactant was evaluated in animal models at Dr. Veldhuizen’s research lab at St. Joseph’s Health Care London.

The study showed the synthetic surfactant equaled or outperformed animal-derived surfactants in every outcome. This included outperforming animal-derived surfactant in oxygenating blood, which is the lungs’ main purpose. The team estimates the synthetic surfactant could be produced at as low as one quarter of the cost of animal-derived surfactant.

Oral curcumin shows no benefit in reducing inflammation following vascular surgery

In the largest randomized trial for oral curcumin, researchers at Lawson and Western University showed no benefit in reducing inflammation when curcumin was taken after vascular surgery. Curcumin is the active medicinal ingredient in turmeric and continues to gain popularity as a natural health supplement. Researchers studied 606 patients scheduled for elective surgery for abdominal aortic aneurysm repair at 10 Canadian hospitals.

Results showed no positive effect of curcumin on inflammation. In secondary analyses, researchers found there was an increased risk of post-surgical kidney damage in patients in the curcumin group. The study emphasizes the importance of testing turmeric, curcumin and other products marketed as natural supplements in rigorous human clinical trials before claiming any health benefits.

Blood test can predict optimal treatment for advanced prostate cancer

Circulating tumour cells

Deciding which therapy to pursue next for advanced prostate cancer is a critical point for patients and oncologists. An international collaborative study between Lawson, Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, the Royal Marsden and Epic Sciences is one of the first to show that a blood test can predict how patients with advanced prostate cancer will respond to specific treatments – helping to extend the lives of patients. The test identifies if a patient’s circulating tumour cells contain a protein called AR-V7. The study found that patients who tested positive for the protein responded best to chemotherapy while those who tested negative for the protein responded best to hormone-targeting therapy.


Meditation for mental health

Depression in older adults can be a disabling and debilitating condition often leading to other chronic health problems such as heart disease. In a randomized clinical trial that included 83 research participants, researchers at Lawson and Western University found that meditation can be implemented easily and effectively as a therapy to treat late-life depression and mood related symptoms.

Meditation has been shown to have positive impacts, be easy to facilitate, lack negative side effects and be delivered at a low cost. The study showed that participants practicing a form of meditation, called Sahaj Samadhi Meditation, reported a significant improvement in depressive symptoms compared to participants receiving traditional therapies, suggesting it could be beneficial as an additional therapy.

Funding to help tailor patient care

Dr. Richard Kim

Adverse drug reactions are the fourth leading cause of death among hospitalized patients and cost the Canadian health care system over $5 billion a year. Studying a patient’s unique DNA to ensure they are prescribed the right dose of the right medication at the right time has the potential to transform patient care.

Led by Dr. Richard Kim, researchers at Lawson have received $4.4 million to study an expanded personalized medicine program at London Health Sciences Centre. Personalized medicine is the analysis of a patient’s DNA to predict how they will respond to medications. The funding will allow researchers to test personalized medicine for more drugs, follow patient outcomes and assess the cost-effectiveness of the program.