Thanks to a chance meeting, two scientists have developed a new biomarker test to diagnose concussion. The test examines saliva for proteins that are present after brain injury.
An article from Washington’s Top News explains that Emanuel “Chip” Petricoin, PhD, Professor and Co-Director of the Center for Applied Proteomics and Molecular Medicine at George Mason University, and Shane Caswell, PhD, Professor of Athletic Training and founding Executive Director of the Sports Medicine Assessment, Research & Testing (SMART) Laboratory, met at a social event hosted by George Mason University. Both spoke at the event and noticed their work may offer an opportunity for collaboration.
Petricoin’s research centers on using nanoparticles to test for the presence of proteins. His team’s first sports-related test focused on developing a way to detect trace levels of human growth hormone (used for doping) in urine. At the time, the only way to test for this was through cerebral spinal fluid, which involves an invasive procedure.
When Petricoin was brought in as a subject review expert for a grant that focused on traumatic brain injury, he saw an opportunity for his nanoparticle work. “What came out of it was a realization that the technologies and tools that we’re using to discover biomarkers for early detection of ovarian cancer could likely be used for TBI,” Petricoin said. “In fact, probably, we had better tools than the TBI community had been using before.”
Meanwhile, Caswell had been working to build a salivary biobank for years. He has collected baseline samples that allow longitudinal examinations to be made and a non-invasive measure to be taken. One of the keys will be noting changes that can be tracked after injuries.
“How does your biomarker fingerprint change as you’re developing, and are those changes typical? Are they related to potential injury that you might suffer? Those are questions that no one has the answer to,” he said.
In the test that Petricoin and Caswell have collaborated on nanoparticles are immersed in the saliva and retrieved, bringing proteins with them. The findings have shown about 10 different proteins that are showing up in the saliva from athletes with concussions that haven’t been found in samples from those without the injury.
“Another aspect of what we’ve been looking at is not just when someone has suffered an overt concussion, but when someone has no clinical symptoms of concussion that are being manifested, nothing has been reported,” Caswell said. “Is there something that we can identify in their saliva that would be indicative of changes in their biology that would be as a result of repetitive head trauma?”
There are about 1,500 proteins in the saliva altogether–400 of which hadn’t been seen before–and 10 or so of them are different between injured and non-injured individuals. The test has also found a cell receptor in the saliva that has previously only been found in brain tissue.
“I don’t want to say you have a piece of your brain in your saliva, but, biochemically, it’s like, your brain got knocked around, it released—cellularly—things that only came from there, and it’s in your saliva,” Petricoin said. “Pretty good indication things are going on.”
Although it’s compelling, the researchers say this finding will need to be independently validated. With more work, this collaboration could potentially bring about a sideline test.
“I don’t think this is going to be a silver bullet that solves the concussion issue,” Caswell said. “But I think that a measure like this that could be ‘deployable,’ particularly on the field, I think could be very beneficial.”
How can a concussion-detecting tool help trainers identify player fatigue? Read more here.
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