Drug that may save brain cells undergoes tests

Dalian, China, doctoral candidate Fan Zhang works in the lab. She is part of the team researching the new drug.Richard Hirst | Lariat Multimedia Editor
Dalian, China, doctoral candidate Fan Zhang works in the lab. She is part of the team researching the new drug.
Richard Hirst | Lariat Multimedia Editor
By Viola Zhou

A toxicology scientist at Baylor is testing a new drug that may cure traumatic brain injuries for soldiers fighting on the battlefield.

Dr. Erica Bruce, assistant professor in the environmental science department, said the drug has the potential to treat the oxygen deficient condition of brain cells, which is commonly seen among military personnel living in an extreme environment.

A total of 27,324 people in the United States armed forces were diagnosed with traumatic brain injuries in 2013, according to U.S. Department of Defense.

Bruce said the drug being tested, the composition of which is confidential, may increase the oxygen content in brain cells.

“When you have a traumatic brain injury, oxygen is deprived in that part of the brain,” Bruce said. “The brain does not regenerate cells. When you deprive the brain of oxygen, you kill those cells and you never get them back.”

She said the drug may also help in the wound healing process, which needs significant amounts of oxygen.

“Soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan have all kinds of environmental exposures like pesticides, particulate matters, dust, stress, heat and dehydration,” she said. “Our hypothesis is all of these things together change the way your body heals.”

Bruce said she decided to do the test after she was approached by Hemotech, the company that invented the drug.

“There is a large group of military personal in Central Texas that we have opportunities to work with and do some investigations with,” she said.

Bruce said the research team is trying to induce injuries in brain cell samples with special instruments and give them the drug to see if it can recover the cells.

She said they have gotten promising preliminary results. The drug proved to help two kinds of brain cells regain viability when the cells are kept separately. The next step is to see how the cells respond to the drug when they are put together.

Tianjin, China, master’s student Peijin Yang, who has been working with Bruce on this test, said the first step was very successful and the future is bright.

“We have many steps to complete,” Yang said. “We need to experiment on different kinds of cells and then on animals, before the drug enters clinical trials. But the process will be smooth.”

But Dalian, China, doctoral candidate Fan Zhang, another team member, said the rest of the test will not be an easy task.

“It is very hard to work out the testing approaches from scratch,” Zhang said. “We are sometimes overwhelmed by the amount of work ahead.”

Zhang said the average time for a drug to get from laboratory to the market is 15 years and the team needs more funding and people to speed up the process.

Bruce said it takes one to three years to complete the laboratory test and the cost is between $3 to $5 million.

She said the group just got a grant of $97,500 from the Edward N. and Margaret G. Marsh Foundation, which is interested in military medical projects.

The team is also applying for sponsorship from the U.S. Department of Defense, and the proposal is now under review.

Bruce said if the drug proves effective, it will be used to help military people who are affected immediately, but later it may be used to treat people who get traumatic brain injuries in car wrecks and sports.

“We hope we can make a difference in treating traumatic brain injuries, especially for military personnel who have served our country and protect our freedom,” Bruce said.