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Research at Mass General
Research Roundup is a monthly recap of recent hospital-wide research news from the Massachusetts General Hospital Research Institute.
One big challenge in developing treatments for Lou Gehrig’s disease – also called amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or ALS – is that there is no reliable way to track the progression of the disease in the brain and gauge the effectiveness of new treatments.
However, researchers at Mass General were recently able to use a radiotracer (an injectable, short-lived radioactive element) to track inflammation in the neural pathways of ALS patients.
Brain inflammation is an important target in developing ALS drugs, and being able to track it should help investigators design better clinical trials and speed the pace of drug discovery.
A Mass General research team recently found that intravenous treatment with low doses of the anesthetic drug ketamine quickly reduced suicidal thoughts in a small group of patients with treatment-resistant depression.
The study found that the ketamine injections, when combined with the patient’s current antidepressant medication, quickly decreased suicidal thinking in patients who had experienced suicidal thoughts for three months or longer.
Ketamine treatment could provide a viable alternative to medications such as lithium and clozapine, which are currently used to treat suicidal thoughts. Both of these drugs can have serious side effects, requiring the careful monitoring of blood levels. More research will now be needed to test the ketamine treatment versus a placebo and to confirm the results in a larger study group.
A research team from the MGH and MIT has designed a tiny, adjustable implant that could be used to deliver chemotherapy drugs directly into pancreatic cancers, instead of requiring the drugs to travel through the entire circulatory system to reach the pancreas.
In laboratory models, delivering treatment directly to the source proved to be 12 times more effective than intravenous delivery, the common treatment for pancreatic cancer. Approximately 80 percent of the 48,000 people diagnosed with pancreatic cancer each year in the United States die from the disease, so there is an urgent need for better treatment options.
An implantable chemotherapy system may also prove to be effective in treating other cancers and could help prevent the side effects that occur when intravenous chemotherapy drugs travel throughout the body.
Could our efforts to live in a germ-free society have an unanticipated drawback? A multi-institutional team that includes researchers from Mass General is investigating the so-called “hygiene hypothesis,” which suggests that early exposure to bacteria and other microbes early in life may help train the immune system to function properly and reduce the likelihood of developing autoimmune diseases and allergies.
The team examined the gut microbial population of infants from three adjacent countries – Finland, Estonia and the Karelian area of Russia.
They found that microbia from infants in the largely underdeveloped Karelian area were markedly different from those in the more modernized countries of Estonia and Finland and that Karelian infants had lower rates of autoimmune disorders and allergies, which suggests there may be some validity to the hygiene hypothesis.
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