Spit May Hold Clues to Concussions

Posted: November 8, 2013 at 5:00 am, Last Updated: November 11, 2013 at 7:00 am

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By Catherine Probst

Shane Caswell

Shane Caswell. Creative Services photo

Stored safely away in a freezer on George Mason University’s Prince William Campus are 317 samples of saliva. These samples, kept below 80 degrees on the third floor of Bull Run Hall, belong to 12- and 13-year-old athletes and are vital in helping George Mason professor Shane Caswell take the next steps in his concussion research.

Caswell, associate professor of athletic training in Mason’s College of Education and Human Development (CEHD), has dedicated most of his career to studying traumatic brain injury and concussion. In his latest endeavor, Caswell is working with Emanuel Petricoin, co-director of the Center for Applied Proteomics and Molecular Medicine in the College of Science (COS), to develop the world’s first salivary biobank to further his research on concussions.

Their partnership started as a watercooler conversation that evolved into how Petricoin’s own research on cancer biomarkers could potentially contribute to Caswell’s concussion research. With funding from CEHD and COS, the pair began working with 21 youth athletes from Central Loudoun Youth Football League (CLYFL) this fall to collect and test the players’ saliva samples. To improve accuracy, each player wears a sensor in his/her helmet during practices and games that detect the force, location and frequency of impacts.

Emanuel Petricoin

Emanuel Petricoin. Creative Services photo

“One of the best aspects about this project is that we are utilizing a noninvasive method to obtain a sample to do our biomarker work,” says Caswell, who is also co-director of the Sports Medicine Assessment Research and Testing (SMART) Laboratory. “Ultimately, we hope our research will help coaches and parents recognize the risks of concussions, as well as minimize players’ risk of head trauma.”

Caswell and Petricoin freeze the samples from the “spit repository” and later test them against one another in hopes of determining patterns that coincide with repeated trauma to the head.

According to Petricoin, a key piece to the research was the implementation of the novel nanoparticle technology he and his colleagues invented for their ongoing biomarker discovery work.

After some initial tests, the researchers discovered a handful of proteins, some of which had never been described as existing in saliva.

“There is so much information yet to be discovered that is stored in an athlete’s salivary biomarker,” says Petricoin. “Our goal during these early stages is simply to identify what is in the saliva. Later, we can hopefully use this information to determine the severity of a head trauma and whether or not an individual has suffered a concussion.”

In addition to their work with CLYFL, Caswell and Petricoin are also collaborating with athletes from Prince William County Public Schools, Marymount University and Mason. The pair hopes to add more collaborators when more funds become available — they recently applied for a grant from the GE Head Health Challenge.

As they have only just begun their research, they both agree that a device for detecting concussions is still years away. Ultimately, though, they hope their findings will lead to a mouth guard that turns from clear to blue when a concussion is detected.

Write to Colleen Kearney Rich at ckearney@gmu.edu

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