Pathologists at the OSU College of Veterinary Medicine may not have the Hollywood hairstyles and designer wardrobes of pathologists on television’s crime dramas but their work is very similar. For instance, on a recent episode of CSI, the pathologist performed an autopsy that yielded DNA evidence used by hotshot investigators to track down a killer. Likewise, in the laboratories of the Linus Pauling Institute (LPI) on the Oregon State University campus, pathologist Christiane Löhr uses tissue samples to track a killer of a different kind: cancer.
The Linus Pauling Institute (LPI) was founded to investigate the role that vitamins and minerals play in human aging, immune function, and chronic disease. The ultimate goal at the LPI is to enhance health and lifespan by finding ways to use dietary supplements for the prevention or treatment of human disease. Bringing investigators from different disciplines together and creating an environment that strongly encourages an interchange of ideas and concepts has been one of the hallmarks of the LPI and Löhr welcomes that spirit of collaboration.
From her small office in the LPI, Löhr juggles participation in several cancer studies with her half-time position as a pathologist at OSU’s Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory. Her work at the VDL is straight-up diagnostic testing of animal tissue for specific diseases. Her work at the LPI is much more investigative. “I do not come from an experimental background. That has developed since I came to LPI because there is a need,” she says. “The pathologist who used to work with them passed away a number of years ago and it left this void that no one was able to fill. It was a great opportunity for me.”
One the projects Löhr is working on tests the effects of whole foods or parts of foods on cancer development. This work involves collecting tissue data from both human trials and animal models. For instance, when patients at the Portland Veterans Hospital get biopsies for prostate cancer, samples are sent to the LPI along with food questionnaires supplied by the patients. Löhr and other researchers use these tissue samples to look for connections between the patient’s health and diet. “There is really very little known about how much of these food components actually end up in the tissues and what sort of effect we could expect on a whole organism like a person,” says Löhr.
In another project, Löhr uses mice exposed to a carcinogen to see if certain food components have an inhibiting effect. The mice are divided into three groups: one gets placebo, one gets the carcinogen, and one gets the carcinogen plus a preventative substance they are investigating. All of the carcinogens used with the mice are comparable to something humans might be exposed to but in much larger quantities. One of the carcinogens mimics seared meat and another mimics a byproduct of internal combustion engines.
In yet another project, Löhr is working with David Williams investigating whether the inhibiting effect of a food component is passed on to the next generation. Early results indicate that if a mother rat is getting certain nutrients during pregnanacy, it does affect her children’s tendency to get cancer. That project developed because Williams was expecting to see tumors in old animals and all of a sudden really young animals died. “That is where a pathologist comes in really handy,” says Löhr. “You can sit down and figure out what is actually going on. In this case, it turns out that because they changed from one strain of mouse to another strain of mouse they now have lymphoma leukemia. That presents a different sort of platform to look at the outcomes. Now we will compare the two strains.”
Unlike some scientists who obsessively spend their entire career seeking the answer to one question, Löhr enjoys the variety and new challenges that collaboration brings to her work. “One of the problems I’ve had over the years is the more time you spend on collaborations, the less time you have for your own projects but I like to work on different things and meet different people,” she says. “It’s exciting in a research setting; it is a different pace from what I am usually doing.”