|At NIH, scientists at
intramural institutes in Bethesda have the opportunity both
to work at the laboratory bench and follow patients at the Clinical
Center. Though the Reproductive Research Branch had moved to
NICHD, the scientists collaborated with cancer researchers at
NCI. Vaitukaitis and her colleagues examined patients with choriocarcinoma,
a type of cancer in which patients showed elevated levels of
hCG. While simultaneously working on purifying and developing
tests for identifying hCG in human serum, they could study both
current Clinical Center patients and blood samples previously
collected by the NCI and frozen for research.
JV: In screening some of these patients, we routinely
took blood and measured hCG in them. We started turning up hCG
levels in some of these patients. This was brand-new territory.
But here we were working in a laboratory—it really underscores
why you need physicians to be involved with clinical research.
If you can make the diagnosis, you had a way of treating the
GB: So we went to the freezer. Griff Ross had serial
samples from women with choriocarcinoma and we put those samples
into the assay. Some of the women who were supposed to be cured
actually still had hCG. We started to look at other types of
cancers, too. Tom Waldmann at NCI also had a freezer full of
blood samples from cancer patients, both single and serial samples.
We put the samples through the assay, and found that 18% of
the nontrophoblastic tumors showed levels of hCG. This was news:
hCG was a tumor marker for non-trophoblastic tumors as well
as trophoblastic tumors.
Research at NIH, as elsewhere, is a collaborative experience.
Griff Ross’ group needed some basic research tools to
do their studies, including, among other things, purified hormone
and urine from post-menopausal women. These substances would
be used for experiments as the scientists learned more about
hormones and the human body. The group used hCG purified by
NICHD grantee Robert Canfield, known as the CR preparation of
hCG, for “Canfield-Ross.” For other research supplies,
they turned to some unusual sources.
JV: Canfield’s laboratory was isolating the
human chorionic gonadotropin from the pregnancy urine, and he
had isolated it and broken it down to two subunits. That was
back in the days where you had to do things by hand, and so
the throughput was very slow and tedious.
JV: We were doing studies on follicle-stimulating
hormone [FSH]. It was like hCG but it has a different biologic
effect. We wanted to study the biologic effect of FSH, so we
contacted a retirement home for nuns and arranged with the nuns
to collect their urine and put it in these big plastic containers.
[We would] go over there once a month with somebody who was
strong enough to lift these bottles. I would say probably each
plastic container held probably about 15 gallons of urine. We
would take it back and then process it to isolate the FSH from
it, [and] then use that to study what the effect of sialic acid
was on hormone action. It was unbelievable, but we got a lot
of stuff done with that. I would never want to do it again!
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Working on an experiment, NICHD, c. 1971.