May 2012

Novel Approach Seeks To Revolutionize Treatment Of Brain Injuries

The Food and Drug Administration has not yet approved a drug for the treatment of traumatic brain injuries. Dr. Kenneth Barbee wants that to change.

Dr. Barbee and his team in the Cellular Biomechanics Lab are pursuing a different way to treat brain injuries. Their goal is to develop a drug that can be used to repair the damage to a cell membrane soon after the traumatic injury happens.

“The way we treat brain injuries hasn’t really changed for 100 years,” Dr. Barbee explains. “We are trying to intervene at the front end of the problem.”

An associate professor in the School of Biomedical Engineering, Dr. Barbee studies the physical phenomena associated with cellular processes. His research on traumatic brain injuries looks at what can be done to correct the physical damage that occurs to a cell during an accident or other event. The unique approach involves using polymers to promote the sealing of a damaged cell membrane.

“We think of polymers as this inert material that we use for making plates,” Dr. Barbee says. “To think something like that can have a therapeutic effect is novel in medicine.”

Dr. Barbee started his research on repairing cell membranes in the mid-1990s. All forms of trauma and common conditions such as heart attacks and strokes damage the integrity of cell membranes. The idea of repairing the membrane was at first a “little bit of a hard sell.”

“The idea that you could come in and intervene has been somewhat foreign,” he says. But the research has now gained the support of the National Institutes of Health. Dr. Barbee is collaborating with Dr. Gianluca Gallo and Dr. Ramesh Raghupathi, both from the College of Medicine, on the NIH grant.

The work of Dr. Barbee focuses on trying to understand how the physical environment impacts cellular function. The lab team studies the biomechanics of brain injuries as part of determining if a cell can be repaired.

“If you believe the physical damage to the cell is causing the problem, then you try to do something,” he says. “This represents a really unique approach to treating this disorder.”

The method of delivery for the polymer that would repair the damaged cell is unknown, Dr. Barbee says. It could be delivered intravenously or as an injectable into the brain. The early intervention is critical, according to Dr. Barbee, noting that victims in car accidents might not be seen by a neurosurgeon for several hours.

“My dream is that this this is something that an emergency medical technician can have when they find you on the side of the road,” Dr. Barbee says.