Texas-based neurology researchers continue to make significant advances in better understanding brain injury, with researchers at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston leading the way. BioNews Texas reported on a landmark study out of the UT Medical Branch back in May, when science columnist Ayesha Khan reported on how researchers had unveiled a potential key molecular mechanism that may be responsible for chronic brain damage as a result of traumatic brain injury. Now, in what the university says is the most wide-reaching project of its kind, researchers are expanding their focus once again on traumatic brain injury, examining its progressive, chronic effects on the body in hopes of treating its immediate and long-term consequences.
The project, which is being funded by a 3-year, $9 million grant from The Moody Foundation of Galveston, is expected to produce wide-ranging data in traumatic brain injury, which will fuel future research initiatives, develop new recovery treatments, and an eventual cure. Dr. Donald S. Prough, chairman of the UTMB Department of Anesthesiology, an expert on the clinical management of TBI patients, and author of more than 200 papers related to the treatment of TBI and other critical illnesses, sees this study as critically foundational: “What we want to do is find the basis for new cures and new treatments for TBI,” said Prough.
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The new UTMB study is the largest in scope ever attempted for better understanding the effects of TBI, and will experiment with five different research approaches:
- Using adult circulating mesenchymal cells to repair brain tissue.
- Testing promising pharmacological therapies.
- Determining how TBI influences gene expression and protein expression.
- Creating a molecular model of the events leading to brain injury.
- Identifying drugs or compounds that could protect neurons.
Given the large scope of the project, UTMB will contribute teams for each project, which will consist of 10 team leaders and at least 40-50 additional researchers. Ultimately, they seek to better understand how mesenchymal cells can be programmed to protect brain cells, counter inflammation, or replace cells damaged by TBI, according to a UTMB press release.
“In order to find new treatments, you first have to get a comprehensive understanding of what is going on in the brain after injury,” Prough said. “We are confident that those treatments will involve adult circulating mesenchymal cells.”
Like many other new, experimental treatment modalities, the study could reveal how a patient’s own body and cells could reverse traumatic brain injury that currently appears to be irreparable. This novel cell treatment comes from cells that have been developed by Dr. Joan Nichols, co-director of the Internal Medicine Stem Cell Laboratory and associate director of the Galveston National Laboratory at UTMB:
These circulating mesenchymal cells exist in the blood, so they will be harvested by drawing blood from an injured patient. They will then be injected into the same subject from whom they were obtained, so there is no risk of rejection. These cells have already proven their ability to convert to nerve cells and to release substances that preserve the cells around them.
About Traumatic Brain Injury
Traumatic brain injury, otherwise known as “TBI,” is the result of several different diseases and maladies, and comes to dramatically affect cognitive and behavioral functions, physiological processes, and a person’s quality of life, afflicting their communication and motor skills. TBI is most commonly associated with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, epilepsy, chronic traumatic encephalopathy, memory loss, depression and suicide.
In particular, TBI impacts both soldiers and athletes most frequently.
The disease is often referred to as the “signature wound” of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans, who have suffered from combat-related injuries, both serious and mild alike. It is estimated that 25 percent of all military casualties from the past two wars suffer from some kind of TBI, and that the disproportionately high incidence of suicide and depression among soldiers compared to the rest of the population might be linked to the disease.
However, even among the general population, TBI is a pervasive and serious disease, affecting more than 5 million Americans, with a treatment cost of more than $56 billion each year in the United States alone.