Amy Sater, a professor and chair of the Department of Biology and Biochemistry at the University of Houston (UH), was recently awarded a two-year, $386,000 grant from the Robert J. Kleberg Jr. and Helen C. Kleberg Foundation to develop a model for the study of traumatic brain injury (TBI). She is the first scientist at UH to receive a Kleberg Foundation grant.
“The goal of this project is to develop a system that will allow us to perform large-scale screens to search for possible drugs that can facilitate recovery from brain injury,” Dr. Sater said in a UH press release.
The system she is developing will use tadpoles of the African clawed frog, Xenopus laevis, a model with important advantages for performing broad TBI studies into potential therapies. Small and with a fast rate of reproduction, these frogs have brains that are easily observable until the late tadpole phase. But first, the development of transgenic lines are necessary to enable the easy observation of specific cell types in the brain, as well as the development of protocols to induce brain injuries. The research team is planning to adapt for the tadpoles protocols already used to study brain injuries in mice.
“We will be focusing on cells called astrocytes,” Dr. Sater said. “When there is a brain injury, the frontline response of the brain is mediated in large part by astrocytes.”
Astrocytes surround neurons and serve many functions in the brain, including the repair and scarring process of the brain and spinal cord. After a brain injury, astrocytes migrate to the damaged area and form a glial scar that limits the injury’s expansion. Astrocytes also play a role in the post-TBI inflammatory response.
Dr. Sater’s team will generate tadpoles expressing fluorescent proteins in astrocytes so they can be easily differentiated from adjacent tissue. This will allow the researchers to image the astrocytes’ response to injury, and to evaluate recovery rates. Ultimately, the team expects to treat large numbers of tadpoles with diverse compounds, while evaluating the compounds’ efficacy in the promotion of brain recovery.
Researchers will also work with Professor Badri Roysam’s laboratory at UH. Dr. Roysam, chair of the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, and his group will help develop methods for quantitative analysis of images of cells responding to brain injuries.
The Kleberg Foundation grant is eligible for the Texas Research Initiative Program, which matches funds awarded through private endowments to further advance research projects.
It is estimated that 1.7 million people in the U.S. citizens sustain a traumatic brain injury each year, and 5 million are living with the long-term effects of such injuries. The rates are higher among veterans and athletes, and treatment options are limited. The annual costs of TBI, including lost wages and productivity, are estimated to approach $60 billion.