Matt Reilly was brand new to the biomedical engineering department at UTSA when he had an odd conversation with a glaucoma surgeon about three surgeries he'd had to do on Christmas Day. Three kids had been playing together with their new paintball guns without protective gear, and wound up with optic nerve trauma.
"It was just a chance meeting," Reilly said.
Who knew that kids goofing around with paintball guns would lead to a method to help soldiers with head injuries?
His surgeon colleague's Christmas Day surgeries served as a serendipitous inspiration for Reilly. In the past two years, Reilly's created a model for optic nerve trauma, which is a common injury for soldiers hit by IEDs. He just received a $1 million grant from the Department of Defense (DoD).
"The specific condition we're targeting is called traumatic optic neuropathy," he said. "The current treatment for it is observation, which means basically wait and hope it resolves itself."
The only other treatment is using steroids, Reilly said, but clinics avoid that because it can frequently cause death in people with brain injuries. The lack of a suitable model has been the biggest obstacle to finding alternatives for treatment.
"The injury is very common," he said, adding that it isn't just affecting soldiers, but victims of car accidents too.
The DoD grant will allow Reilly and his collaborator and fellow faculty member in the biomedical engineering department, Rena Bizios, and Tim Duong and Randy Glickman in ophthalmology at the UT Health and Science Center, to use MRI machines to test injured nerves. They will look at how different nutrients flow through the nerve before and after the injury to develop a method of determining whether the cell is intact.
Katelyn Swindle-Reilly of Rochal Industries LLC, a local wound care product development company, will lead the effort to develop a new material used to deliver localized doses of potentially therapeutic drugs to the injured nerve.
"Many, many soldiers have visual deficits," Reilly said. "Usually, that's been attributed to damage to the brain. We hope that by giving them a diagnostic tool to use, they'll be able to distinguish whether the problem is in the brain and treat it more effectively."