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Medical mysteries of nausea to be topic of forum in Pittsburgh

| Tuesday, Oct. 1, 2013, 12:43 a.m.

Mention the word “vomit,” and someone likely will make a finger-toward-open-mouth gesture or crack a joke about praying to the porcelain gods.

Yet scientists who study vomiting and nausea point out the symptoms are no laughing matter.

“I haven't seen a lot of humor in this field,” said Charles Horn, a neuroscientist and associate professor of medicine at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine who studies vomiting. “It's a very adverse event. Most people don't like vomiting.”

About 100 vomiting and nausea experts from around the world will gather for the first time this week in Pittsburgh. Scientists from as far away as Australia will discuss the medical mysteries behind these unpleasant symptoms. The subject has not led to scientific meetings before, officials said.

“It is something that I think for the most part has been neglected within science,” Horn said. “What we're trying to do is ... get more people involved in it.”

The two-day conference will examine why some patients — such as pregnant women or cancer patients who get chemotherapy — experience vomiting and nausea, often in excessive amounts. Research shows vomiting affects more than half of pregnant women during their first trimester.

Nausea and vomiting are among the primary diagnoses when people go to the emergency room for gastrointestinal trouble.

“If it goes on for a long time, they're not really able to get the nutrition they need,” Horn said.

Horn became interested in studying vomiting when researching feeding and body weight in rodents. He discovered that laboratory rats and mice don't have a vomiting reflex. Pitt scientists opted to use musk shrews from East Asia in their research, he said.

Better understanding of the genetics and biology of vomiting and nausea could lead to better treatments, Horn said. Though medications exist to treat the symptoms, they're not effective in roughly half of patients. Treatments for chemotherapy side effects control nausea but not vomiting, he said.

“It definitely interferes with my life,” said Jamie Snyder, 43, of Greensburg. She was forced to quit her job as a case manager with the state Department of Aging because of regular bouts of nausea and vomiting related to Crohn's disease.

The daily medicine she takes sometimes doesn't help control the symptoms.

“If I eat too much, I get sick. I have to be mindful of what I'm eating,” she said. “If they could come up with better treatment, they would help a lot.”

Although unpleasant, throwing up is not always bad, Horn said.

“If you have a viral infection, if you have bacteria in a tainted food, you eat something that has a toxin in it, you want to get rid of it,” he said.

Luis Fábregas is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7998 or lfabregas@tribweb.com.

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