by Alex Butler
Megan Ashworth, University of Tampa senior biology major, is currently conducting the only research project in the world using stem cells to treat chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). The disease causes memory loss, personality changes, and has led to suicidal actions.
“We’re looking at a specific type of neuron called the oligodendrocyte just because those aid a lot in regeneration of brain tissue,” said Ashworth. “We’re going to take stem cells and turn them into human oligodendrocytes and we’re hoping we can take those stem cell derived neurons and use them as treatment for this certain neurodegenerative disease.”
The group studied current scientific literature to see if the project would be a first for this line of research.
“We’ve found that this is the first research project using exosome guided differentiation of female umbilical mesenchymal stem cells into human oligodendrocytes,” said Ashworth. “The research into treatment options for CTE is scarce to non-existent because the disease is so new.”
Ashworth along with senior biology major, Salvatore Corallo, and UT assistant professor of biology, Pavan Rajanahalli, have worked on the project for over a year as a part of the 2019 Student Undergraduate Research Fellowship. The fellowship is the first ever cohort for a summer research program on-campus according to undergraduate research director, Eric Freundt.
“Another thing with the brain is that it does not regenerate,” said Rajanahalli. “What Megan is trying to do is take exosomes and put them in the IV of patients who are prone to concussions, these small vesicles find their way to the brain and they tell the other cells to stimulate regeneration in the brain.”
“I have a lot of passion for sports, I’m a big football fan and a big hockey fan…I’m honestly afraid that the guys I’ve grown up admiring are going to have [CTE] one day too,” said Ashworth.
The disease has strongly affected several professional athletes, including Pittsburgh Steelers player Mike Webster. Boston University professor, Ann Mckee, completed a study that showed 110 out of 111 brains from deceased National Football League (NFL) players had the disease.
However, reliable in-depth research of CTE has been postponed by organizations such as the NFL in the past.
According to an investigation by the New York Times, the concussion research that the NFL conducted failed to include over 100 diagnosed concussions. This resulted in head injuries appearing “much less frequent.”
An article by GQ said Webster began sleeping in train stations, tased himself to fall asleep, and attempted to superglue fallen teeth back in his mouth. According to the article, the NFL stated that football related brain trauma in Webster was a “complete misunderstanding” and had “serious flaws.”
CTE and severe brain injuries have also been known to affect college athletes.
Corallo, who is also a hockey player at UT said, “On the team guys joke about it, if you get hit they’re like oh CTE, now you have sushi brain, but I think if you ask people around campus they might not know about it, at least not to the extent that we do,” said Corallo.
“I know about concussions but I’ve never heard of CTE,” said freshman biology major Lianette Genaro.
Ashworth and Corallo are hoping to complete the study before their graduation in May.
“I would love to see the project through before we graduate but it continues beyond that,” said Ashworth. “I would love to get my PHD in stem cell biology and be able to continue this stuff afterwards.”
Alex Butler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org