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hCG Research at NIH
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hCG Research at NIH

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 disease.

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, circa 1971
Working on an experiment, NICHD, c. 1971.
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