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SALT LAKE CITY — Researchers at the University of Utah and University of Washington have published a study indicating that a drug traditionally used to treat cancer may be useful in mitigating the effects of traumatic brain injuries.
Multiple brain injuries, even those that are minor, can harm neurons in the brain. This degradation can lead to anxiety, memory loss, agitation, mood swings, and more. University of Utah and University of Washington researchers recently discovered that Paclitaxel, an FDA-approved cancer drug, helped mice that had experienced minor traumatic brain injuries.
“I believe this work is the tip of the iceberg that could transform how we treat traumatic brain injuries,” Donna Cross, Ph.D., study author and associate professor in radiology and imaging sciences at U of U Health, said in a recent press release. “This drug shows promise for reducing brain injuries and may also help fortify the brain against the effects of future head injuries.”
David Cook, a researcher on the study who is from the University of Washington’s school of medicine, explained the neural processes the drug would target.
“Every cell in the body has a special shape, and they all have their own little skeletons like we have our skeletons that give us shape. Our skeletons are made out of bones, but the skeletons inside of our cells are made out of little proteins that have structural integrity,” Cook told KSL.com.
Many of them are called microtubules, Cook explained, and they act like support beams. They can also be like little railroads that are used by the cell to transport molecules from one place to another. In a neuron, (the primary component of the brain), long processes called axons go out some distance away and communicate with other cells. These axons are largely composed of microtubules.
“Microtubules are inherently unstable in the sense that they are constantly being worked on,” Cook explained. “They are being built up and un-built. There are leading ideas in the traumatic brain injury field that these long processes are vulnerable to injury."
Well-known chemotherapy drug Paclitaxel treats multiple varieties of cancer by stabilizing microtubules, which helps keep dangerous cells from dividing. Study author Cross was curious if Paclitaxel might be able to use the same process to stabilize the framework inside of neurons damaged by traumatic brain injuries.
Cross, Cook and the other researchers on the project used mice in their experiments, to see if they could determine the effects of Paclitaxel on the brain. Researchers successfully showed that Paclitaxel reduced brain injuries from head trauma in mice when administered intranasally immediately after the first impact to the head. Memory loss was prevented in mice with mild traumatic brain injuries that were given the drug. Additionally, imaging done on the mice’s brains showed the brain abnormalities in the injured mice were lessened when they were given Paclitaxel.
Cook pointed out that there haven’t been many courses of treatment for traumatic brain injuries that have worked, so administering a type of drug that’s not ordinarily used to treat these types of problems may be worth consideration.
The treatment has not yet been tested on people, so the results are not certain. Additionally, researchers aren’t sure if the drug will still be effective after some time has passed between the traumatic brain injury and the administration of the drug.
The study has a long way to go before it reaches human trials, but researchers are optimistic that Paclitaxel could have a lot of uses in coming years for treating traumatic brain injuries.
“Concussive forces to the head can affect all of the cells in your brain,” Cross said. “We believe Paclitaxel stabilizes many different cell types to help circumvent the downstream cascade of events following a brain injury.”