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Cancer Drug Shows Promise in Mitigating Concussive Brain Injuries

Impact Concussion Graphic

With Super Bowl LIII on the horizon, Americans are gearing up to celebrate the modern-day clash of the titans. For many, football has become a taboo topic, as former fans abandon the sport to protest traumatic brain injuries caused by players hurling their bodies against one another again and again and again.

Repeated brain injuries, even minor ones, can degrade the health of neurons in the brain, which can lead to memory loss, anxiety, agitation and mood swings. Researchers at University of Utah Health and University of Washington found an FDA-approved cancer drug paclitaxel offers protection to mice after experiencing mild traumatic brain injuries, also referred to as mild TBI. The results of the study are available online on February 2nd in the Journal Alzheimer’s Disease.

“I believe this work is the tip of the iceberg that could transform how we treat traumatic brain injuries,” said Donna Cross, Ph.D., research associate professor in Radiology and Imaging Sciences at U of U Health and first author on the study. “This drug shows promise for reducing brain injuries and may also help fortify the brain against the effects of future head injuries.”

Paclitaxel is best known as a chemotherapy drug used to treat numerous kinds of cancer. It works by stabilizing microtubules, microscopic support beams that give cells shape and offer a mechanism for molecules to move through the cell’s cytoplasm. Cross wondered if paclitaxel might also stabilize the support beam-like framework inside neurons that can be damaged by head impacts.

“One of the things that make these finding interesting is that it helps emphasize the importance of how TBI can disrupt the delicate balance that exists between microtubule stability and instability in the brain,” said David Cook, Ph.D., VA Puget Sound Health Care Center Geriatric Research Education and Clinical Center and Department of Medicine at the University of Washington and a collaborating researcher for the study.

To test their hypothesis, Cross, Cook and their colleagues examined the effect of paclitaxel using a mouse model. The researchers found that the drug prevented memory loss in the mice that experienced a mild TBI. They also imaged the mouse brains (magnetic resonance imaging and F-flurodeoxyglucose positron emission tomography imaging) and found reduced brain abnormalities in the injured mice that had received paclitaxel. 

“Concussive forces to the head can affect all of the cells in your brain,” said Cross. “We believe paclitaxel stabilizes many different cell types, to help circumvent the downstream cascade of events following a brain injury.” 

The authors caution that it remains to be seen whether the treatment works the same in people. Further, it is not known how long following an injury the drug can be given and still be effective. 


Cross is joined in this study by Amanda Stump, Chloe Cross, and Satoshi Minoshima at U of U Health; David Cook, James Meabon, Marcella Cline, William Banks, and Todd Richards at University of Washington. 

Their work, titled Paclitaxel Reduces Brain Injury from Repeated Head Trauma in Mice, received support Institute for Translational Health Sciences, University of Washington Friends of Alzheimer’s Research, University of Washington Royalty Research Fund.