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Blood Biomarker Measured in Hockey Player Concussions

Hockey faceoff

(Dan4th/Flickr)

14 March 2014. Researchers at Quanterix Corp. in Lexington, Massachusetts, and universities in Sweden, tested the company’s method for detecting and measuring tau protein as an indicator of concussion in the blood of professional hockey players. The team led by Pashtun Shahim at University of Gothenburg, with colleagues at Quanterix, Sahlgrenska University Hospital, and University College London published their findings online yesterday in the journal JAMA Neurology.

Quanterix develops medical diagnostics it says are many times more sensitive than standard lab tests. The company’s technology captures single molecules with magnetic beads in traps as small as one-quadrillionth of a liter, using standard reagents based on enzymes and antibodies. The technology is based on research by Tufts University chemistry professor David Walt, Quanterix’s scientific founder, who continues as an advisor to the company.

Quanterix applies the technology to diagnostics for cancer, inflammatory disorders, and infectious diseases, as well as neurological conditions. For brain disorders, its diagnostics measure concentrations of the tau protein, associated with Alzheimer’s disease and traumatic brain injuries. Detecting and measuring tau protein currently requires samples of cerebral spinal fluid, usually collected through a lumbar puncture, also known as a spinal tap, which is expensive and time-consuming.

The new study sought to detect and measure tau concentrations using a Quanterix test in samples of blood plasma, which are much easier to collect than cerebral spinal fluid, but up to now tau concentrations in blood were too low to be detected. The researchers took baseline measures with standard concussion assessments and blood samples from 288 hockey players from 12 teams in Sweden’s professional league before the 2012-2013 season began.

Players from two of the teams agreed to take part in more extensive tests, and provided blood samples after sustaining head injuries or concussions during the season. Blood samples were collected  1, 12, 36, 48, and 144 hours after an injury, and before returning to the ice. The players were also diagnosed using standard concussion assessments and guidelines. Of the 47 players on the two teams, 35 sustained a concussion from September 2012 through January 2013, with 28 agreeing to provide blood samples.

The blood tests using the Quanterix technology show the players with concussions had increased levels of total tau protein, as well as calcium-binding protein B, another biomarker for brain injury, compared to their preseason readings. The tau protein levels were highest immediately after the injury, and generally decreased in the next 12 hours, then over the next six days (144 hours). Tau levels also tended to be higher for more severe concussions, where players lost consciousness, but the differences were not large enough to be statistically reliable.

Detecting and tracking concussions with a blood test makes it possible to simplify the accurate diagnosis of the condition, as well as indicating when a player is fit to return to the ice (or field or ring). Blood tests could also be designed for diagnosing traumatic brain injuries suffered by troops in combat.

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