Q&A: Professor receives grant to study tadpoles, brain injuries
In March, The Kleberg Foundation awarded Amy Sater, professor and chair of the Department of Biology and Biochemistry, a two-year, $386,000 grant for the study of traumatic brain injury. The funds will be used to find ways to assist a patients’ recovery after injuries.
The Cougar sat down with Sater to discuss her upcoming study.
The Cougar: What research will the grant be used for?
Amy Sater: The purpose of this grant is to carry out a pilot study to see if we can use tadpoles of a frog (for research). This frog is very widely studied for molecular biology, early development and a variety of other things. We want to see if we can use this species to study very specific aspects of the response to traumatic brain injury — not at all with the neurons, but with the astrocytes. Astrocytes make up about half the human brain and are cells that carry out a bunch of different functions, like creating an environment where neurons can function properly. This proposal is to study their responses to brain injury and to do so in the tadpoles. The grant will pay for the animal costs, my graduate students and a technician to carry out these studies. We are working on this project in collaboration with Badri Roysam, who is chair of electrical and computer engineering. Using their computational approaches, they can help us find very subtle changes that are happening with regard to astrocyte shape or size.
TC: About how long do you think this study will take?
AS: The hope is to take two years to develop these tools to establish these transgenic lines. It is a pilot project so it could all go up in smoke. This initial project could take a couple of years, and by then we will have set up follow-on projects, so I expect this to be an arch of work for me for the next decade.
TC: Why tadpoles?
AS: My lab has historically worked on early neurodevelopment in frog embryos and we generate many tadpoles — more than we ever use. The critical aspect about tadpoles is that the skull does not form until the early metamorphosis into an adult frog, so you can look right down into the brain in the living tadpole. That gives us an opportunity to do all kinds of things and because we can get dozens to hundreds of tadpoles we use a lot less money than operating on mice.
TC: How is this study and studying brain injuries significant?
AS: Brain injury affects close to 8 million people in the United States. We have very little in the way of effective treatment for brain injury, although we are learning more about a form of brain injury called blast traumatic brain injury, TBI, which is the signature injury for veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan. What we are trying to do is develop protocols for establishing the brain injuries. The idea will be that we anesthetize the tadpole, do the injury in a very controlled, reproducible way and then do that on large number of tadpoles. When we do that, we can screen for things that might be effective at keeping the astrocytes in a state in creating a favorable environment.
TC: How has working here at UH helped advance your studies?
AS: This is a very broad department, so we cover a wide range of biology. I always have to think about things outside of my field and that makes me think more broadly about science too. This project ties really well to human biology, so I think students can take hold of it and captivate the imagination. Also, I have an opportunity to collaborate with people in very different disciplines. For instance, Roysam is an engineer by training and his contribution is important to this project.
TC: Why should people really care about this study?
AS: Last fall, I went to a meeting about brain injury and something that stuck with me was seeing a doctor who worked with clinical patients. He would put patients in an MRI, imaging the sight in the brain where they had been wounded. What he found was that there is inflammation at the wound sight for a period after injury, which you think would be for weeks. He saw inflammation for 200 months, which is over 10 years. That sustained inflammation is really damaging for the tissues.
People begin to realize this is a chronic condition and it has much more long-ranging and far-reaching effects than we had originally thought. I am excited at the possibility that I can make a contribution of any size, even if it’s small, because this is an area that needs all it can get. If we can do something that supports veterans who come back with blast TBI, for example, it is a good day.