Flagstaff scientist helps solve world hunger crisis

Flagstaff, AZ – When Northern Arizona University scientist Loretta Mayer set out to cure heart disease in women, she never dreamed her discovery would help solve the world hunger crisis. Arizona Public Radio's Laurel Morales has this profile.

Loretta Mayer has a long to do list. She speed walks just about everywhere she goes. She's easy to spot with her spiky white hair.

Mayer recently discovered what many of the great inventors of our time found before her.

MAYER: Most of our greatest scientific observations come from looking for something else.

In order to tell Mayer's story, it helps to understand a little reproductive physiology. Heart disease typically occurs in post menopausal women. Loretta Mayer says up until recently researchers studying heart disease in female mice would take out their ovaries to simulate menopause.

MAYER: Menopause is actually the result of all of the eggs being removed from the ovary. And the majority of women go through menopause at this natural loss of eggs but they still have their ovary in tact. With Dr. Cheryl Dyer here at NAU we were able to show that that ovary that is devoid of eggs really makes a significant amount of androgen, which is an important hormone.

Mayer wanted to find out if androgen was a contributing factor in heart disease. So she figured out how to remove the eggs from a mouse without surgery. She invented a sterilizing drug, essentially creating a post menopausal mouse.

In the meantime a team of Australian scientists were working on the world hunger crisis. They came across Mayer's finding and called her up one day to tell her

MAYER: You know we've been following your research and if we could make all of the rats in Southeast Asia who consume inordinate amounts of rice if we could make those rats menopausal then they would not reproduce. Uncontrolled reproduction of rats is really the root cause of their increasing damage to the rice fields.'

Mayer and her company SenesTech set out to find a way to distribute the so called "mouseopause" in mass quantities in the form of rat food.

Her discovery takes her all over the world. Currently Indonesia attempts to control the rat population with poison, which has environmental and health consequences.

MAYER: I wondered, what is a little white coat mouse doctor like me doing under this mosquito netting in Indonesia? And the answer was world hunger of course.

Indonesia and other countries are working on obtaining government approval of the drug. They hope that the rat control would be available in a year and a half.

After word got out about surgery-free sterilization, a veterinarian on the Navajo Reservation approached Mayer.

MAYER: He said, if you could make a mouse menopausal I bet you could do that for a dog and if you could do that I wouldn't have to kill 400 dogs a month in Gallup. I went to vet school to learn how to save lives.' And I said, I'm a mouse doctor' and he said, come sit in my pick up truck and take a ride.' By the end of the ride I said ok.

She did a study involving 18 dogs including a dog she adopted named Patches. The jolly, white and brown spotted dog follows Mayer wherever she goes.

And it's hard to keep up with Mayer's success.

Mayer's waiting to hear if her company has won a huge 25 million dollar grant to produce the pet contraception.

And as she recalls it all started out in her garage with a couple of mice and a hope to cure heart disease. She hasn't given up her original research but has passed the baton to other researchers at NAU.

For Arizona Public Radio I'm Laurel Morales in Flagstaff.