Faculty Focus


Ultrasounds

By Kris Foster

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photo by Scott Bell

By using sound, Roger Pierson’s research is helping women better control their reproductive systems.

Sound isn’t always about what you hear; sometimes it is about what it helps you see.

"Sound is sometimes about using physics in creative ways to make a picture,” explained Roger Pierson, professor of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive sciences in the College of Medicine.“Those pictures can explain the world around us."

Pierson uses ultrasound—anything with a frequency greater than 20,000 hertz, which is above the upper range of human hearing—to get a better picture of the female reproduction system.

At the frequency that Pierson's tools operate, three million to 40 million hertz,"it's not really sound any more; they are acoustic pressure waves. We bounce those waves around female bodies to get a picture that we can use to understand how reproductive systems work normally and what happens when things go wrong," said Pierson, who was the first scientist to use ultrasound to visually capture human ovulation.

Some of the areas Pierson and his team have researched include reproductive physiology related to fertility treatment and contraception, and reproductive pathologies like cancer of the ovaries and uterus.

"Using these ultrasonographic tools, we discovered and characterized human ovarian follicular activity in a way never before possible. This work led to new methods for stimulating the ovaries for assisted reproduction that are being used in fertility clinics around the world. It has also helped in the design of safer, more effective contraceptives, like the contraceptive ring, contraceptive patch and oral contraceptives."

He admits that this area of research is controversial because some don’t believe science should have a role in reproduction, but to Pierson, it is about reproductive choice, which is becoming increasingly important because of growing populations and ever-scarce resources. "As a global society,we need to understand and be able to manage population growth because many of the world’s problems depend on it. But this research is really about the individual and a decision about reproduction."

The Dog Whisperers

By Kris Foster

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Teresa Chu (left) with Ally and Sheila Schmutz with Sam.

Dogs may have a new best friend in Sheila Schmutz, a dog lover who also happens to be a world-renowned animal geneticist at the U of S.

Schmutz, a professor of animal and poultry science in the College of Agriculture and Bioresources, hopes her research can find a link between genetics and deafness in dogs.

"Deafness in dogs is a huge problem and has always been explained as congenital—showing up at birth or in old age," explained Schmutz. "We know that there are many types of deafness inpeople. Inheriting mid-life deafness is very common in humans, but there was never an animal model for mid-life deafness."

That was until Teresa Chu (BSc’96, DVM’00), a graduate student in the Western College of Veterinary Medicine at the time, tracked down Schmutz seeking her expertise in genetics.

Chu had come across something unusual: a seven-year-old border collie⎯(middle-aged by dog standards)⎯that became, without any previous signs, deaf. Because the dog’s mother developed deafness in mid-life, explained Chu, the owner had the younger dog tested every year since its birth and never had a positive test for deafness.

"The owner wanted to breed this dog, but thought there might be a problem so tested every year," said Chu, who confirmed the adult-onset deafness using a brainstem auditory evoked response (BAER) test. She searched for other reports and research on the subject, but found nothing."At this age in a dog, finding that deafness could be genetic and not congenital was never reported."

Chu then came across another border collie, Ally, who went deaf at five. On a mission and wanting to learn more about the genetic implications of the disease, Chu started attending border collie herdingevents. There she talked to border collie owners, performed BAER tests and collected DNA samples from more than 200 dogs. She discovered mid-life deafness in about a dozen dogs, with seven cases likely being adult-onset deafness.

The information that Chu collected and studied with Schmutz suggested a possible genetic link. Schmutz hopes to compare DNA sequences in both deaf and normal border collies in the hope of finding mutations, and will then check for similar mutations in other deaf dogs. It all could lead to a genetic test for adult-onset deafness.

"I do this work to help dogs, but the animal model could potentially provide a medical model for hearing loss in humans, too," explained Schmutz. Chu,now a veterinarian in Saskatoon, adopted Ally. She had a litter of three puppies that are now seven years old and all began loosing hearing at about five years of age.