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Temple medical school awarded grant for brain injury research

Researchers from the Lewis Katz School of Medicine and other medical professionals in Philadelphia institutions received a $700,000 grant to research traumatic brain injuries.

Part of the grant from The Science Center, a nonprofit that supports technological advancement, was awarded to Servio Ramirez, a Temple University pathology and laboratory medicine professor, and his team of researchers from the Katz School of Medicine, who are developing ways to detect and diagnose TBI through the bloodstream. The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, University of Delaware and the University of Pennsylvania will also receive part of the combined award.

“We’re fortunate to be here right now, at Temple where we’re growing,” Ramirez said. “We have a lot of intellectual talent, [and] in order to grow scientifically, you need to have that fertile ground of other scientists providing feedback at an institution like Temple that supports you and wants to help you develop your ideas. That’s huge.”

The grant is part of the Science Center’s QED program, named after the abbreviation for the Latin phrase, “proven as demonstrated.” The program, which is partially funded by the Pennsylvania Department of Health, provides mentorship and funding to academic researchers so they can advance early-stage life science and health care technology.

The Science Center looks for ideas that have market potential and offer improvements to current standards of care, said Sharon Ross, QED’s program manager.

“Dr. Ramirez’s technology checks all of those boxes with the potential to support health care providers as they diagnose, monitor recovery and even predict outcomes associated with brain injuries,” Ross said.

Ramirez’s blood test evaluates extracellular vesicles, which the body’s cells release to transfer information to other cells and are released from injured vessels when the brain suffers trauma. The test will help medical professionals more effectively monitor patients’ recoveries and better predict TBI outcomes, according to a Science Center press release.

External force on the brain causes TBI, which can be severe or mild. Severe TBI can lead to brain death, while concussions, a form of mild TBI, result in post-concussion syndrome symptoms like ongoing headaches and fatigue. While 75 percent of brain injuries are not life-threatening, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates 5.3 million people in the United States have long-term TBI disabilities.

There are not many ways to detect TBI, Ramirez said, even with computed tomography scans, which are cross-sectional X-rays of the brain. More than 90 percent of people with mild TBI who are CT scanned come back with normal results, according to the CDC, but with time, patients show TBI symptoms, Ramirez said.

Temple Health is also hoping to conduct concussion research with the university’s football team, Temple Athletics announced in November 2018. Players would be equipped with helmet sensors that monitor impact, according to a press release. The Temple Athletics Helmet Sensor OwlCrowd campaign raised nearly $7,000 to fund the players’ gear.

James McHale, a 2017 criminal justice alumnus who played on Temple’s offensive line from 2014-18, suffered seven concussions in his lifetime, three before coming to Temple and four more during his college career. McHale remembered one incident where he got hit during practice and suffered a concussion during the 2017 season.

“There are tell-tale signs that you have to look out for,” McHale said. “You know if someone has a concussion if they’re acting funny. As players, we can learn to recognize it…and it happens a lot.”

McHale said he lost consciousness and doesn’t remember getting up. His coach told McHale after he was hit unconscious he got up and began incoherently walking around the field.

He also made head-to-head contact with another player later that year, which caused another concussion. McHale began to experience headaches and nausea for the next week and did not play for about a month. Although McHale had multiple concussions, he was allowed to stay on the team.

There’s hope for a breakthrough on TBI detection if fellow Katz School of Medicine researchers and outside institutions continue to support each other, Ramirez said.

“We can continue to do the things we know and do [them] well, and this will take us to that next level,” he added.

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