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DoD makes advances toward blood test to diagnose concussions

Aug. 31, 2014 - 01:01PM   |  
Soldiers prepare slides with blood samples for testing during a training exercise. The Defense Department is closing in on a blood test to detect concussions.
Soldiers prepare slides with blood samples for testing during a training exercise. The Defense Department is closing in on a blood test to detect concussions. (Dean Siemon / Army)
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The Defense Department is closing in on a blood test to detect concussions.

DoD awarded a $19.5 million, two-year contract to Illinois-based Abbott Laboratories on Aug. 13 to develop a kit that may detect two proteins found in the bloodstream after a blow to the head.

The eventual goal is to have a cartridge that can be inserted into an Abbott-made analyzer already in use by DoD that measures kidney, liver and heart function.

The new test would register the proteins, providing verification of a head injury that can’t be detected by conventional scanning equipment.

If successful, the test could be used on the battlefield, in training and on sports sidelines, said Army Col. Dallas Hack, coordinator for the Brain Health/Fitness Research Program Coordinator at the Army’s Medical Research and Materiel Command.

“We’ve measured [one of these proteins] up to two days after a mild traumatic brain injury and up to a week later for the other,” Hack said. “The challenge for us has been how to actually do these tests in a way they can be run by a clinical laboratory.”

More than 300,000 troops have suffered a head injury since 2000, with the majority — about 82 percent — categorized as “mild.” That has led the military to invest $1.7 billion in TBI research since 2007.

This next effort — to create a test that can be used outside the research lab by doctors in the field — comes after a successful study of the protein biomarkers involving 2,000 patients, Hack said.

A device that detects mild TBI would be a game-changer in the medical world, and a boon to troops. About 80 percent of concussions among service members occur in non-combat incidents, including training, car accidents, falls and sports.

“If you look at all the other organ systems of the body, the heart, the pancreas, the thyroid, the liver, they all have blood tests. The brain doesn’t have a serum blood test to detect a concussion, and as a neurologist, it’s about time,” said Dr. Beth McQuiston, medical director for Abbott.

Former Army Sgt. Adam Anicich says a test may have allowed a diagnosis of his head injury shortly after it occurred in 2006.

Instead, a noticeable decline in his cognitive function drove him to seek care from the Veterans Affairs Department more than a year after he fell off a shipping container in Iraq.

“It’s critical we find a test that immediately identifies a TBI because it would allow us to identify what challenges are going to be associated with the individual, in terms of inserting them back in the fight or how we can assist in their recovery immediately,” Anicich said.

Despite earlier research proving that at least two proteins are released in the bloodstream following a head injury, McQuiston warned that a portable test is still at least a couple of years away.

“It’s too early to say [how long it will take]. We’re at the first steps of the journey, and we’re going to put everything we have into this,” McQuiston said.

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