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01
Feb

A Houston research team has uncovered a possible treatment for severe brain injuries that could dramatically improve the outlook for tens of thousands of trauma patients – from those injured on Houston highways, to soldiers wounded on faraway battlefields.

About 275,000 people across the country each year are wheeled into emergency rooms with severe traumatic brain injuries; about a fourth don’t survive. Those who do often suffer permanent disabilities, in part because swelling in the brain in the days and weeks after the injury cuts off blood flow, killing neurons.

In a new clinical trial conducted at Memorial Hermann Hospital, researchers from UTHealth have shown it’s possible to reduce brain inflammation by harvesting stem cells from a trauma patient’s bone marrow and re-infusing them into the bloodstream within 48 hours of injury. The results are promising, said Dr. Charles Cox, who’s been working on the experimental treatment for more than 15 years.

His cell therapy is “not a miracle cure,” Cox said, and it probably wouldn’t save those who suffer the most severe head injuries.

“I’m talking about the difference between someone who recovers to the point that they can take care of themselves, and someone who is totally dependent on someone else for even simple tasks, like using the bathroom and bathing,” said Cox, a professor of pediatric surgery at UTHealth and co-director of the Red Duke Trauma Institute at Memorial Hermann. “That’s a dramatic difference.”

Cox and his team previously demonstrated the safety and potential effectiveness of the treatment in a clinical trial of children. In a paper published Monday in the Stem Cells journal, the researchers reported they’d confirmed those findings in a study of 25 adults, paving the way for a far more rigorous clinical trial now underway.

The therapy works by “down regulating” the inflammatory response to a head injury, Cox said. Swelling is a normal and important part of the body’s response to any physical trauma.

“That’s fine when it’s your ankle,” Cox said. “The problem is your brain is encased in a hard bony case – the skull – that doesn’t allow for much expansion. So inflammation there results in increased pressure, and if it rises high enough, it inhibits blood flow to the brain.”

Head trauma resulting from falls onto pavement is the most common injury treated at Houston’s overcrowded trauma centers. There’s no effective treatment now to limit swelling in the brains of those patients.

The U.S. Department of Defense also has interest in the work; the treatment could revolutionize the ability of soldiers to recover after surviving bomb blasts and other head injuries.

The Pentagon recently gave Cox $6.8 million to continue the research.

“This could be a game changer,” he said.

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