Public Release:  University of Montana researchers awarded grant by NFL and GE to forward brain research

The University of Montana

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IMAGE: UM researchers Sarj Patel, left, and Tom Rau, right, study blood-based biomarkers that indicated how the brain reacts following a traumatic brain injury. view more

Credit: Todd Goodrich

MISSOULA - Athletes, members of the military and others suffering from traumatic brain injury may benefit from research conducted by two University of Montana faculty members through a new $300,000 grant awarded by General Electric Co. and the National Football League.

GE and the NFL have announced 16 winners in the first stage of the $20 million Head Health Challenge. UM Research Assistant Professors Sarj Patel and Tom Rau were among the challenge winners selected to speed diagnosis and improve treatment for mild traumatic brain injury. Other projects were selected from both biotechnology companies and leading research institutions, including Johns Hopkins Medical School; the University of California, San Francisco; and Weill Cornell Medical College.

The goal of the Head Health Challenge is to improve the safety of athletes, members of the military and society overall. Winners were selected from more than 400 entries from 27 countries, after having been reviewed and nominated by a panel of leading health care experts in brain research, imaging technologies and advocates for advances in brain research.

GE and the NFL will provide mentorship, access to GE researchers and industry thought leaders, with the opportunity to win an additional $500,000 award in 2015.

Patel and Rau conduct research at UM's Department of Biomedical and Pharmaceutical Sciences in the Skaggs School of Pharmacy. They are working to determine blood-based biomarkers that indicate how the brain reacts following a traumatic brain injury. First phases of their research, which was funded by Missoula-based Montana Neuroscience Institute and the state-based Montana Board of Research & Commercialization Technology, have shown that TBI results in changes in how the brain operates and in levels of proteins and ribonucleic acids. Identifying specific biomarkers will show how TBI changes the brain and could help doctors with diagnosis and treatment.

"This award will allow us to immediately begin research to identify biomarkers of injury occurring in the brains of athletes or military personnel," Patel said. "We will collect blood samples from people who have suffered from a traumatic brain injury to see if we can detect these molecules and ultimately determine how long it might take for them to return to play or service."

The researchers have a collaborative agreement with St. Patrick Hospital in Missoula to collect samples from emergency room patients, and according to Patel, they are in early discussion with UM's Department of Athletics to see if UM athletes could be included in the research.

Rau said they already have worked with human samples in collaboration with Dr. Ann McKee, a professor at Boston University and co-director of the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy. Using samples from BU's human brain bank, which includes brains from deceased patients, they were able to identify similar biomarkers of TBI based on their previous research with animals.

"That's part of what got us the award," Rau said. "We are far enough along with animals and with humans that we could convince them this was a worthwhile venture."

He said the research may help solve the mystery of why a localized brain injury causes damage throughout the entire brain. Because proteins work in the body as transporters and catalysts, a disruption in one area could cause farther-reaching problems.

"The award highlights the talent of our young investigators," said Richard Bridges, Regents Professor and chair of UM's Department of Biomedical and Pharmaceutical Sciences. "It points to how we've been building momentum and critical mass in the study of traumatic brain injury and neuroscience.

"It also provides graduate and undergraduate students real-world experience in cutting-edge neuroscience research, allowing them the opportunity to participate in the discovery process," Bridges said. "It's the most important and exciting aspect of the sciences, and we need to deliver those experiences to our students."

Launched in March 2013, the Head Health Challenge is part of the Head Health Initiative, a four-year, $60 million collaboration between GE and the NFL. The initiative includes a $40 million research and development program from the NFL and GE to evaluate and develop next-generation imaging technologies to improve diagnosis that would allow for targeting treatment therapy for patients with mild traumatic brain injury.

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For more information on the Head Health Challenge, visit http://www.ninesights.com/community/nfl-ge-grand-challenge. For more information on the research happening at UM, call Patel at 406-243-5876 or email sarjubhai.patel@umontana.edu, or call Rau at 406-529-7916 or email thomas.rau@umontana.edu.

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