In the most wide-reaching project of its kind, scientists at UTMB are expanding their research on traumatic brain injury, examining its progressive, chronic effects on the body in hopes of treating its immediate and long-term consequences. The project is funded by a three-year, $9 million grant from The Moody Foundation of Galveston.
While three years is not enough time to produce a cure in itself, it will produce enough data on which to base recovery treatments, which can then be applied to further research and hopefully, in the end, a cure for this life-altering disease process, according to Dr. Donald S. Prough, chairman of the UTMB department of anesthesiology.
“What we want to do is find the basis for new cures and new treatments for TBI,” said Prough, 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.
TBI affects cognitive and behavioral functions, physiological processes, and a person’s quality of life, afflicting their communication and motor skills. It is linked to early-onset Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, epilepsy, chronic traumatic encephalopathy, memory loss, depression and suicide.
“One of the biggest problems with TBI is that so far there are no specific treatments,” Prough said. “If somebody is injured, you put them in the ICU and then into rehabilitation. There is nothing to change the number of injured brain cells, to keep them from being lost and to get them to regenerate.”
Frances Moody-Dahlberg, executive director and trustee of The Moody Foundation said, “We are pleased that UTMB is working on potentially transformative research in TBI, which has long been an interest of The Moody Foundation and Moody family, from their own personal experience with TBI.”
Robert L. Moody Sr., chairman, added, “Through this grant and the research to be conducted, The Moody Foundation believes that UTMB will become a national leader in the treatment of traumatic brain injury by providing new hope for individuals and families affected by this severe problem.”
TBI has been called the “signature wound” of soldiers coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan, with an estimated 25 percent of military casualties caused by TBI. TBI may be one of the reasons why veterans have a higher incidence of suicide and depression than the rest of the population.
TBI also has received attention because of its frequency in athletes. Any impact to the head — even a series of mild hits — that occurs from being tackled during a football game or being hit in the head during a boxing match can cause TBI.
In all, more than 5 million Americans suffer from the injury, and its treatment costs the country more than $56 billion each year. In Texas alone, someone sustains a TBI every four minutes.
Dr. David L. Callender, president of UTMB, lauded the commitment by The Moody Foundation.
“This grant not only lays the foundation for this project but also signals to the scientific community that UTMB and The Moody Foundation are committed to finding a way to effectively treat TBI,” Callender said. “This is an ambitious and exciting project and we’re thankful to The Moody Foundation for its support.”
The UTMB project will be the most comprehensive look to date at TBI and is based on five research plans: 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; and identifying drugs or compounds that could protect neurons.
A project of this scope will rely on one of the largest research teams in this field of study, with 10 leaders and at least 40-50 additional researchers. They hope to learn how these cells can be programmed to protect brain cells, counter inflammation or replace cells damaged by TBI.
“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.”
If successful, the study may show that the damage done by TBI could be reversed using a patient’s own cells. The project’s novel approach will employ cells that are prepared by professor 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.
The Moody Foundation pledged a total of $25.5 million in May 2012, which includes funds for the construction of the new Jennie Sealy Hospital at UTMB. The foundation was established by W.L. Moody Jr. and his wife, Libbie Shearn Moody, in 1942 and has contributed more than $54 million to UTMB projects.
Other key leaders of the TBI project are Douglas S. DeWitt, professor of anesthesiology and director of the Traumatic Brain Injury Research Laboratory; Brent Masel, director of the Transitional Learning Center, which is a unique Galveston facility that provides rehabilitation for patients with TBI; Lawrence Sowers, chairman of pharmacology and toxicology; B. Montgomery Pettitt, director of the Sealy Center for Structural Biology and Molecular Biophysics; Ping Wu, professor of neuroscience and cell biology; Bruce Luxon, director of the bioinformatics program; Csaba Szabo, professor of anesthesiology and director of the High-Throughput Drug Discovery Laboratory; Joaquin Cortiella, professor of anesthesiology and co-director of the Internal Medicine Stem Cell Laboratory; and Helen Hellmich, associate professor of anesthesiology.