Jefferson Investigates: Contaminated Currency, Autism-Inclusive Healthcare Spaces, and Novel Prostate Cancer Treatment

Investigating presence of drugs on American currency, designing sensory-friendly environments for people with autism, and developing new therapies for prostate cancer.
Image Credit: © Adobe Stock Alexandra/334000506

Study Reveals Alarming Levels of Drug Residue on U.S. Currency

A new study led by Thomas Jefferson University researchers has found that American currency carries much more than germs on its surface. The study used a new method of analysis to examine one-dollar bills collected from 13 cities across the U.S. Fentanyl, a potent opioid, was detected on 63% of the bills, shedding light on the widespread presence of this dangerous substance in everyday transactions.

Matthew P. Hewes, a 2023 graduate from Jefferson with an MS in Forensic Toxicology, was the first author of the study, and in addition to fentanyl, he observed that cocaine and methamphetamine were even more prevalent, found on virtually all bills in significant amounts.

Despite the concerning findings, the risk of someone experiencing toxicological or pharmacological effects from handling contaminated currency is low for the general population says Alex J. Krotulski, PhD, senior author of the study and forensic toxicology researcher. However, the study found that regions with higher fentanyl use had higher rates of contaminated bills. Dr. Krotulski believes this insight suggests that analyzing currency could serve as a valuable tool for tracking drug trends on a regional and national scale, providing timely information to public health organizations and law enforcement agencies.

Dr. Krotulski envisions this research as a potential early warning system for addressing the continued increase in drug overdose rates and a valuable resource for public health planning and drug scheduling efforts.

“Currently, most of the data we get about drug trends comes from police seizures, and that data is sometimes backlogged for nine or even 12 months, meaning we don’t know what’s going on for almost a year,” Dr. Krotulski explains. “This is an alternate path to insights that we might not otherwise get in a timely fashion.”

By Queen Muse

Dr. Roseann Schaaf with her patients. Image Credit, Ed Cucinelli

Designing Autism-Inclusive Healthcare Environments

Autism is the most common neurodevelopmental disorder in the U.S., affecting an estimated one out of 36 children. Most people with autism experience unique sensory features such as differences in reactivity to touch, sounds, and sights or difficulty managing multiple sensory inputs at the same time.

These sensory differences can make the healthcare environment — often characterized by fluorescent lights, idle waiting rooms and uncomfortable pokes and prods — difficult to navigate, preventing children with autism from getting the care they need. To change that, occupational therapists Roseann Schaaf, PhD, and Lady Rios-Vega, OTD, are working with Dr. J. Matthew Fields to design more inclusive healthcare environments for autistic children as outlined in a new study in the journal Discover Psychology.

Using the creative problem-solving framework of design thinking, Drs. Rios-Vega, Fields and Schaaf analyzed healthcare environments and met with parents of autistic children, healthcare professionals and designers to collaboratively brainstorm how the experience could be improved.

They emerged with new ways to make healthcare environments more friendly for autistic children with sensory differences. One is to include a “sensory adaptive environment,” an area near the waiting room with varied sensory zones, with features like rocking chairs and activities for children who need more sensory stimulation and features like bean bags and weighted blankets for children who need to relax. Drs. Schaaf and Rios-Vega also identified the need for increased training of medical professionals about sensory differences, and they recommended developing adaptations for medical procedures like vital signs measurement, such as having a family member model the procedure first.

“This project is one step closer to helping children with autism participate in healthcare more comfortably, more successfully,” says Dr. Schaaf.

As a continuing collaboration with the Jefferson Autism Center of Excellence, the researchers are also working on studies focusing on the barriers to service access for Black, Hispanic, and Latino autistic children and their families, engagement of minoritized communities in research and culturally sensitive interventions.

By Marilyn Perkins

Image Credit: © Adobe Stock Worldillustrator/609297456

A New Way to Treat Prostate Cancer

The American Cancer Society estimates there are nearly 300,000 new cases of prostate cancer every year in the U.S., and approximately one in eight men will be diagnosed with prostate cancer in their lifetime. Prostate cancer is often treated with androgen deprivation therapy, which lowers testosterone levels to shrink tumors. However, this treatment has side effects including sexual dysfunction and weight gain, and it eventually results in castrate-resistant prostate cancer, a deadlier form that grows even when testosterone levels are low.

Now, new research published in Science Advances suggests there may be a workaround to improve prostate cancer therapy.

“We want to develop a new therapeutic approach for androgen deprivation in a way that is more patient-friendly,” says Marja Nevalainen, MD, PhD, a translational medicine physician-scientist and senior author on the study. Using a clever trick of cell signaling, her research curbs tumor growth through a different route.

Androgen deprivation therapy works by decreasing activity of the androgen receptor, a key protein involved in both testosterone signaling and prostate tumor growth. However, the androgen receptor eventually develops mutations that stop androgen deprivation therapy from working. Dr. Nevalainen wondered if she could avoid mutations and target the androgen receptor and associated tumor more directly by blocking activity at Stat5, a protein involved in boosting androgen receptor levels and promoting prostate cancer growth.

Using a drug that inhibits Stat5, Dr. Nevalainen measured androgen receptor levels and prostate cancer growth in cell cultures and human tumors in vitro and grafted into mice. She found that inhibiting Stat5 significantly slowed tumor growth and decreased androgen receptor levels. Because Stat5 inhibition suppresses the androgen receptor, Dr. Nevalainen believes this approach may carry a lower risk of inducing castrate-resistant prostate cancer because the androgen receptor is less likely to mutate or develop other genetic adaptations.

The next steps will involve translating this research into humans. Dr. Nevalainen says a new drug influencing Stat5 activity is beginning to be tested in Phase II clinical trials.

By Marilyn Perkins

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