In a first for medical science, researchers have devised a blood test that definitively detects a neurodegenerative brain disorder linked to depression, Alzheimer’s disease, and even violent tendencies in former NFL players and others who have suffered concussions.
The so-called TauSome test is the first to identify chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) while sufferers are still living. Until now, doctors have only been able to diagnose CTE through autopsy after a patient has died. The new test would allow doctors to identify individuals who have CTE while they are still alive, which could fast-track the development of new treatments that hold promise for easing or reversing the condition.
The National Football League has acknowledged that many NFL players have suffered CTE, which can be caused by multiple head injuries. The issue has been highlighted by several highly publicized cases of former NFL players who suffered severe depression, committed suicide, and were later confirmed to have CTE — including former NFL linebacker Junior Seau who took his own life in 2012.
The new test was developed by Exosome Sciences Inc., in collaboration with Aethlon Medical Inc. and investigators at Boston University and the University of Washington who have been studying CTE in former NFL players and other athletes.
Preliminary results of a study of the TauSome test, published in the Journal of Alzheimer's Disease, showed that it was able to accurately detect a CTE biomarker — known as exosomal tau, AKA TauSome — in 78 former NFL players who had suffered repetitive head injuries.
“Exosomes are very small vesicles that are released from all types of cells throughout the body, including brain cells,” the researchers wrote, in announcing their findings. “They can be isolated in all body fluids, including plasma, a component of blood.
“The ability to diagnose CTE during life will allow researchers to better determine its incidence and prevalence, to examine risk factors to understand why some people get CTE and others do not, and to begin clinical trials of methods aimed at treating and ultimately preventing the disease.”
They added that the test’s development could also lead to better methods of testing other causes of dementia because CTE is very similar to Alzheimer's disease and related neurodegenerative diseases.
For their study, researchers examined 78 ex-NFL players and 17 other former non-contact sport athletes. All were participants in a larger research project, funded by the National Institutes of Health, to develop a variety of biomarkers for CTE conducted at Boston University School of Medicine.
The results showed exosomal tau was significantly elevated in former NFL players compared to the other athletes. The researchers also found individuals with higher levels of the CTE biomarker in their blood scored more poorly on standard memory tests and measures of motor skills.
“The higher the TauSome level, the worse the performance,” the researchers reported.
"We are extremely pleased that our initial study data has been published and we appreciate forthcoming opportunities to further advance our TauSome biomarker as a non-invasive solution to detect and monitor CTE in living individuals," said Jim Joyce, founder of Exosome Sciences and chairman and CEO of Aethlon Medical.
Although the researchers noted their findings are preliminary, they are promising. A series of future CTE studies are already planned, including a seven-year research project underwritten by a $16 million NIH grant recently awarded to researchers at BU and other universities to develop methods of diagnosing and treating CTE while victims are alive.
“There are so many critical unanswered questions about CTE,” Dr. Robert Stern, the lead principal investigator and a professor at Boston University School of Medicine, said in a statement, issued in response to the NIH grant. “We are optimistic that this project will lead to many of these answers, by developing accurate methods of detecting and diagnosing CTE during life, and by examining genetic and other risk factors for this disease.”
Former NFL Hall of Famer Joe Namath has also lent his name to a new research project at Jupiter Medical Center in South Florida that is testing the potential benefits of hyperbaric oxygen therapy in reversing CTE. The treatment, which Namath says has benefitted him personally, involves flooding the brain with high levels of oxygen, essentially rejuvenating and reawakening brain cells that have been damaged and gone into functional dormancy.
The former New York Jets quarterback was the first patient to undergo the therapy last year after he began suffering memory lapses and mild symptoms, and his doctors have said the results were remarkable. Namath said the treatments led to significant improvements in his thinking ability and working memory and scans of his brain showed areas damaged by head injuries he suffered became more active after therapy.
Now, the Joe Namath Neurological Research Center is working to raise funding to conduct a larger FDA-approved clinical trial to demonstrate the benefits of HBO therapy.
If successful, it would be a game-changer in the treatment of such injuries, bringing new hope not only to NFL players, but other contact-sport athletes, accident victims, stroke patients, and vets who suffer traumatic brain injuries.
Specialists say it also has the potential to treat a host of other conditions, including brain trauma, stroke, multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy, autism, and Alzheimer’s.
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