Medical Research | St. Louis Public Radio

Medical Research

Philip Mudd picks up a cooler of medical samples at Washington University's School of Medicine. Mudd and his colleague Jane O'Halloran created a centralized bank of samples collected from COVID-19 patients in St. Louis.
Washington University

Researchers at Washington University are collecting samples from hundreds of people who have had COVID-19 — including blood, saliva and urine.

As scientists scramble to answer a multitude of questions about the coronavirus, medical samples are becoming an ever more critical piece of the puzzle. By creating a centralized specimen bank and sharing samples among labs, Wash U physicians are hoping to streamline the research process.

Postdoctoral researchers Adam Bailey and Brett Case work on a vaccine to prevent the disease caused by the new coronavirus in a laboratory at the Washington University Medical Campus in March 2020.
Matt Miller | Washington University School of Medicine

As the number of COVID-19 cases climbs in the U.S., scientists at the Washington University School of Medicine are working on a vaccine to prevent the disease. 

Researchers are using a virus that’s harmless to humans and replacing a protein on its surface with one from the coronavirus that spreads the COVID-19 disease. That strategy could generate antibodies in the immune system that would attack the virus, said Sean Whelan, head of Wash U’s Department of Molecular Microbiology.

Dr. Daniel Hoft, left, demonstrates how to listen to the heartbeat of a patient with Eric Eggemeyer, coordinator of clinical research at SLU's Center for Vaccine Development.
St. Louis University

Sarah King isn’t afraid of having the flu — in fact, she considers herself an “excellent sick person.”

“I have a pretty high pain tolerance,” King said. “I'm not a person that whines a lot. I just kind of suck it up.”

When she heard about a medical study that pays volunteers about $3,000 to be infected with the flu virus, the marketing manager thought the offer sounded too good to pass up. Last month, she checked in for a 10-day stay at St. Louis University’s “Hotel Influenza,” a quarantine unit where researchers study how the human immune system fights the flu virus.


For years, doctors have used an expensive brain scan to detect symptoms of Alzheimer's disease. 

But researchers at Washington University have found that a simple blood test could be similarly effective, according to a study published this month in the journal Neurology. A blood test to diagnose early symptoms could help make finding a cure easy or cheaper and even guide treatment for the disease in the future, the study’s authors say. 

A Washington University researcher holds a piece of paper coated with tiny gold particles that can be used to test blood for Zika virus.
Provided | Washington University School of Medicine

St. Louis researchers have used a strain of the Zika virus to shrink highly lethal brain tumors in mice. 

The study, run by Washington University and the University of California San Diego, used 33 lab mice with glioblastoma, an aggressive form of brain cancer. Mice injected with a strain of the Zika virus lived longer and were measured to have smaller tumors than the control group, which was injected with saltwater.

Dr. Sarada Garg takes measurements with a portable ultrasound machine at Washington University in St. Louis. A pregnant volunteer looks on.
Durrie Bouscaren | St. Louis Public Radio.

Adly Castanaza, nurse from Jalapa, Guatemala, guides the probe of a portable ultrasound over the belly of a volunteer in St. Louis. It’s the same machine she’ll use back in Guatemala, to measure how pregnant women, their children and the elderly are affected by smoke from cook stoves.  

“I have seen, when I was in the hospital, so many people who come from rural communities that have [chronic obstructive pulmonary disease],” Castanza explained. “We have to know exactly if there’s a relation(ship with air pollution).”

Washington University in St. Louis is training health workers from India, Rwanda, Guatemala and Peru to conduct a massive study on how the smoke from traditional cook stoves affects women and children.

Geneticist Michael White, right, visits with postdoctoral researcher Max Staller as he prepares samples in the lab. White is waiting to hear if the NIH will fund a proposal to start his own lab.
Durrie Bouscaren | St. Louis Public Radio.

As Congress faces a deadline to pass a stopgap budget for the rest of the federal fiscal year, scientists in research hubs like St. Louis are paying close attention.

March for Science posters for sale at Firecracker Press.
Durrie Bouscaren | St. Louis Public Radio.

“SCIENCE IS REAL,” declares a stack of printed signs in a St. Louis shop. “Reject Alt-Facts,” reads a hand-drawn poster shared on a Facebook page. Another photo shows a purple Easter egg emblazoned with a diagram of an atom.

For many scientists planning to participate in the St. Louis March for Science on Saturday, activism is an unfamiliar role. But proposals by the Trump administration to slash federal funding for the Environmental Protection Agency, National Institutes of Health and federal science programs have been too much to accept, organizers said.

A mouse runs on a "rotarod" wearing the implantable device. The experiment is designed to test the mouse's motor skills.
Washington University | University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign | Cell Press

A federal initiative to find cures for brain disorders is granting $3.8 million to Washington University researchers and their collaborators.

The group is studying how neurons respond to light by implanting fiber-optic threads the width of a human hair into the brains of lab mice.

“We’re able to get animals to do particular behaviors while this light is dialing up or dialing down particular activities,” said Dr. Michael Bruchas, a Washington University neuroscientist. “We can actually affect how they approach one another, how they interact.”

U.S. Food and Drug Administration

A St. Louis neurosurgeon is helping to pioneer a new treatment for severe obsessive compulsive disorder that involves implanting a device sometimes called a “brain pacemaker.”  

At first, deep brain stimulation sounds like something out of an Isaac Asimov novel. Through a hole in the skull the size of a dime, surgeons place electrodes in a patient’s brain. Wires under the skin connect the electrodes to a device similar to a cardiac pacemaker, which is implanted under the patient’s clavicle.

How to build a child's heart … with a 3-D printer

Mar 10, 2015
A model of the heart of a patient with complex congenital heart disease, created at St. Louis University.
Dr. Wilson King

The development of 3-D printers, which use computer designs to create solid objects, are revolutionizing the way engineers make prototypes, models and even some consumer goods. The practical applications for the health-care industry are huge — and they’re starting to happen in St. Louis.

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Samuel Achilefu, professor of radiology at Washington University Optical Radiology Laboratory, is excited about how light, specifically near infrared light, can be used to identify cancers. To demonstrate how infrared light can help surgeons to see and remove tumors, he shows how a laser pointer penetrates deep into human tissue causing it to glow red. Ordinary white light tends to bounce back.

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 31, 2013: In an era of increasingly high-tech medical care, some potentially deadly health problems turn out to respond best to low-tech remedies.

Case in point is the ongoing federal effort to encourage hospitals and other providers to protect patients from potentially deadly infections from antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 1, 2013 - St. Louis area residents may not know the meaning of sequestration, but they may soon feel its impact through a loss of federal dollars for programs ranging from home-delivered meals for the elderly to vital research at area universities and other institutions.

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 21, 2012 - When James DuBois and a team at Saint Louis University decided to seek funding for a national program to address problems of wrongdoing and unprofessionalism among university researchers, some colleagues doubted there would be much of a demand for the service.

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 22, 2011 - The cases were initially baffling. Children were turning up with too much insulin in their blood as well as an excess of ammonia, sometimes building to toxic levels. Merely consuming too much protein could induce hypoglycemic coma or even death.

"This was a very unique set of symptoms," said Thomas Smith of the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center. "You might have a tumor in your pancreas and you secrete too much insulin. That's hyper insulinism. But you never get this ammonia link."

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 1, 2011 - Have you ever been rushing to catch MetroLink, only to be waylaid by a stranger asking if you would like to be part of a research study? If so, chances are excellent that the experience was a surprisingly pleasant encounter with part of a research team led by Linda Bauer Cottler, professor of epidemiology in the Department of Psychiatry at Washington University School of Medicine.

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 11, 2010 - The first anniversary of the $787 billion federal stimulus program, in mid-February, set off lots of arguments, pro and con, about its worth. But among officials at the area's major universities, there has been no debate about the value of the program. They all say the funding has made a big difference in starting up or continuing important research that benefits everyone.

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 13, 2010 - Do you get paid more to participate in a risky medical study?

In a culture that rewards risk-taking with higher pay, this seems a logical assumption. Research institutions, however, generally reimburse only for the time and expenses required to participate in a clinical trial. People don't realize this. Participants assume higher paying clinical trials are higher risk, according to a new study from the Olin Business School at Washington University.

The Komen Race for the Cure: Why they run

Jun 11, 2009

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 11, 2009 - Participants in the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure often say they are running for their mothers, sisters and friends -– either in their memory or to celebrate them as survivors. They also, of course, are running to raise money to treat and maybe someday cure breast cancer.

In 2008, the Susan G. Komen for the Cure Foundation in St. Louis raised $3.3 million in net proceeds for that purpose. Up to 75 percent of the money stays in St. Louis in the form of grants for community programs and research.

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 4, 2009 - A second surgeon at the Washington University School of Medicine is the target of inquiries from Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, over his financial arrangements with the manufacturer of medical equipment.

The latest questions came in a letter from Grassley, the ranking GOP member on the Senate Finance Committee, about payments to Dr. Daniel Riew from the company Medtronic Inc. The letter was sent by Grassley to Washington U. Chancellor Mark Wrighton on May 21.

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 5, 2009 - In April of last year, faculty members at the Washington University School of Medicine filed 174 applications for federal research grants. In April of this year, the number rose to 615. The spike underscores the intensity of a race among universities to win a hefty share of the $10.4 billion in stimulus money that the National Institutes of Health will award for medical research and facilities.