NFL, GE Award Innovators in Traumatic Brain Injury Challenge

Emily Lea Berry

January 24, 2014

NEW YORK — In a joint effort to accelerate diagnosis and improve the treatment of traumatic brain injury (TBI), General Electric (GE) and the National Football League (NFL) have announced the first round of winners in their "Head Health Challenge."

Sixteen innovators were awarded $300,000 each on January 23 for their promising work in the field of brain injury. Over the course of 4 years, GE and the NFL plan to give away $60 million through the Head Health initiative, with the aim of improving the safety of athletes, military members, and society as a whole. The Head Health Challenge will give away $20 million.

The challenge received over 400 applications from 27 different countries. The vetting process was based on the National Institute of Health's (NIH's) selection process, with a panel of 6 judges, and criteria that looked at innovation in 3 areas, said Sue Siegel, CEO of GE Ventures & healthymagination: a better understanding of biomarkers in TBI, mechanical factors responsible for brain injury, and advancement in the attainment of more information from brain images.

"We launched the Challenge as a call to action to fast-track advancement in head health," Siegel said in a press release. "By advancing the work of these winners, we will better understand brain injuries suffered by athletes and members of the military and improve our knowledge of the brain overall which could help improve our understanding of neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's."

BrainScope’s handheld EEG-based TBI injury detection technology that can be rapidly applied to a patient's head for detection of neurological abnormality.

Three of the 16 winners presented their initiatives at a press conference here. Michael Singer, president and CEO of BrainScope Company Inc, presented a handheld electroencephalography-based TBI injury detection technology with what he called a "minimal-training, right-there-on-the-field kind of approach." The device measures post-trauma changes in electrical brain activity. Singer said his company has been in talks with the US Food and Drug Administration and hopes that in the next few years they will introduce their product into the market.

"Over the past 5 years, we have collected about 4000 patients who have been put into our broad database, and what we do is we create classification algorithms that show whether or not a person might have abnormal brain electrical activity," said Singer of BrainScope's winning device.

Quanterix, a small start-up out of the Boston area, won for its simple blood test that detects proteins and even single molecules associated with TBI and other neurologic diseases. "What is important in this technology is that for the first time you are able to measure TBI through biomarkers in the blood as opposed to through cerebral spinal fluid where most research has happened to date," said Quanterix president and CEO Paul Chapman.

The blood test can also be used in high school sports, in addition to professional sports. "[We] baseline test these biomarkers then measure them over time so that even at a very young age we will be able to determine if there is even a slight brain injury and then intervene at that point," said Chapman.

The University of Pittsburgh's concussion program won for its high-definition fiber-tracking (HDFT) imaging technique, which tracks with finite resolution broken white matter in the brain.

"Concussions are like snowflakes. Everyone is different in how they present," said Michael Collins, PhD, director of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Sports Medicine Concussion Program. "What we are excited about is measuring potentially these white matter changes that subserve these different functional domains [memory, cognition, ocular, and vestibular function]."

Dr. Collins said the $300,000 award will fund a study of 50 athletes, aged 13 to 28 years, who within 7 days of injury will undergo the HDFT imaging technique, then be followed clinically until they appear to be ready to get back into the game.

From left to right, front row: Michael Singer; Paul Chapman; Dr. Michael Collins; General Peter Chiarelli, Challenge 1 judge. Back row: GE Chairman and CEO GE Jeff Immelt; NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell

Update on NFL Settlement

The need for research into head injuries and their long-term effects has been brought into sharp focus for the NFL in recent months. In August 2013, the league agreed to pay a $765 million settlement to retired players, some with dementia, who accused the NFL of hiding the risks of TBI in football. Some research suggests that repeated injury to the head over a long period could lead to cognitive impairment and possibly chronic traumatic encephalopathy.

But at the press conference here, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell appeared optimistic about the outcomes for some of these players: "People are going to get better," he said. "I think it was Mickey [Michael Collins] who told me last summer 'there isn't a patient I can't make better.' And that is something we are very excited about because this is treatable. This is something we can make a difference in."

On January 14, Judge Anita Brody denied the preliminary approval of the NFL settlement over concerns "about the fairness, reasonableness, and adequacy of the Settlement." She said she doubts the proposed funding for the claimants in the suit is sufficient, and analysis of the funding from the NFL's economists was not provided to her.

Second Challenge

In December 2013, new funding from the NIH was announced for 8 new research projects also investigating TBI, including the long-term effect of repeated head injuries, with funding provided by the Sports and Health Research Program, a partnership of the NIH, NFL, and Foundation for the National Institutes of Health.

The NFL and GE are also teaming up with Under Armour for a second challenge to find and fund new materials and tools for protecting and tracking the brain during impact. Entries for the second challenge will be accepted until January 30, 2014.

The 16 winners from the first round of the Head Health Challenge will be followed by the NFL and GE for a year, and then 6 finalists will be chosen to receive $500,000 each in 2015. A detailed list of winners and their innovations can be found on the NFL's Web site.

Challenge 1 Winners

  • Banyan Biomarkers Inc, Alachua, Florida

  • BrainScope Company Inc, Bethesda, Maryland

  • University of California, Santa Barbara

  • University of California, San Francisco

  • Cortical Metrics, LLC, Semora, North Carolina

  • ImmunArray Inc, Richmond, Virginia, and Rehovot, Israel

  • Indiana University School of Medicine, Indianapolis

  • Johns Hopkins Medicine, Baltimore, Maryland

  • Medical College of Wisconsin, Milwaukee

  • Quanterix, Lexington, Massachusetts

  • Sunnybrook Research Institute, Toronto, Ontario, Canada

  • University of Montana, Missoula

  • University of Notre Dame, Indiana

  • University of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

  • VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland, Espoo

  • Weill Cornell Medical College, New York, New York

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