Potential treatment for stroke, brain injury studied with help from Saskatoon's synchrotron

Researchers from the University of Saskatchewan, the University of Oxford and Columbia University have come together share their findings.

A team of researchers from the Universities of Saskatchewan, Oxford and Columbia worked on the project

Nicole Sylvain and Vedashree Meher look at results from the Canadian Light Source Synchrotron. The two researchers were part of a study at the effect of an antipsychotic to help stop brain swelling after a stroke or brain injury. (Canadian Light Source/Flickr)

The University of Saskatchewan's synchrotron is being used to help researchers from Oxford looking for potential treatment for stroke and brain injury victims. 

Researchers from the University of Saskatchewan, the University of Oxford and Columbia University have come together to publish a paper in the journal BAA-Biomembrances.

The study looked into how an antipsychotic medication called trifluoperazine (TFP) —  a medication approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and normally used to treat schizophrenia — could help stop swelling in the brain shortly after a stroke or traumatic brain injury.

Mootaz Salman, a senior research scientist at the University of Oxford and the lead researcher on this study, cited World Health Organization statistics that indicate 60 million people sustain a traumatic brain injury or spinal cord injury a year and 15 million suffer a stroke. 

"These injuries can be fatal or lead to a long-term disability, psychiatric disorder, substance abuse or even sometimes self-harm," he said in a Thursday interview with CBC.

Mootaz Salman is a senior research scientist at the University of Oxford. (Anna Olivella/Harvard University Brain Science Initiative)

Current treatments are limited to treating the effects of brain swelling, rather than the swelling itself. One treatment involves removing a part of the skull so the brain has room to swell, but it's not a pleasant experience, Salman said.

"It's clear that there is an innate clinical need for treatment that can stop swelling in the central nervous system before it develops," he said. 

Strokes, brain injuries cause swelling, long-term impacts 

Salman and his team are researching TFP's impact on proteins in the brain called aquaporins.

When a person has a stroke, the brain's blood supply is restricted, preventing cells from receiving enough oxygen. The oxygen-starved cells aren't able to maintain a balance of fluids. Water rushes through the aquaporins into the starved brain cells, causing swelling. 

The problem is that the brain doesn't have room to swell, due to the skull encapsulating it.

"This will cause and increase the pressure on the fragile brain tissue," Salman said. 

So far, the team's findings seem to suggest that a single dose of TFP reduces brain swelling. 

Research by Salman's team published in the journal Cell last year after found that in rodents with spinal cord injuries,  TFP treatment led to significantly accelerated recovery.

WATCH | How the Canadian Light Source synchrotron works:

See how the Canadian Light Source synchrotron works

12 months ago
The synchrotron uses bright light to help researchers look inside objects at a level of detail not possible using a traditional X-ray or high-powered microscope. 2:51

The latest study from Salman's team had help from the Canadian Light Source synchrotron at the University of Saskatchewan — which accelerates and bends beams of electrons to create a light so bright it can reveal details not otherwise able to be seen — and the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Light Source.

That allowed researchers to look at how the drug interacts with the brain, rather than just observing the symptoms. 

Further research needed: Salman

Results have been positive, leading Salman to hope human clinical trials will follow within the next year. Because the drug is already licensed, it could be deployed much more quickly than a new drug, which can take a years and a massive monetary investment to research and manufacture.

"We wish that our novel approach offers a new hope for patients with brain injuries and strokes," Salman said.

Researchers were able to study an antipsychotic's affect on the brain in treating brain swelling after a stroke with help from the Canadian Light Source synchrotron. (Don Somers/CBC)

Salman said it's important not to overstate the results so far. He said the treatment is still far from being commonly used in emergency rooms. 

But he wants people to know there are teams like his working to find new avenues to treat injuries. 

"What we're trying to do here is provide a shortcut. If our approach was to be successful and we have hope, we hope that we can deliver that hope to the patients."