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When quarterback Kurt Warner suffered a torn ligament in his left arm during the 2007 season, the Cardinals athletic training and medical staff rigged up a brace that allowed Warner to function and play the following week.
But two years later, there wasn’t much that same staff could do for Warner after he suffered a concussion against the Rams and missed the following week.
The only remedy was rest.
The idea that there was treatment for an elbow injury – or an ankle, knee, hip, etc. — and not one for a brain injury always struck Warner as odd, perhaps even ironic.
That’s part of what motivated Warner to become involved with a Florida company called Prevacus, which is trying to market a drug that could be given in the hours after a head injury and could decrease the impact of concussion symptoms.
“It just became a no-brainer to get involved,” Warner said, “because I think this can change so many things for the better if it proves to be everything we think it can be.”
Prevacus is a company founded by neuroscientist Jake VanLandingham, a former Florida State University Medical School professor. It has produced a drug called Prevasol which is delivered as a nasal spray minutes after a mild head injury (concussion) is suffered.
In tests on rats, the drug has reduced brain inflammation and swelling, according to the company. If the drug works on humans, it could reduce the chances that someone suffering a concussion might develop chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease that can cause depression, mood disorders and cognitive changes.
VanLandingham knows how devastating a brain injury can be. In 1995, he was blindsided by a punch to the head while walking with friends after dinner. His head hit a curb, and he almost died from brain swelling, he said.
VanLandingham suffered amnesia for 18 months, lost his sense of smell and had seizures.
“Brain injuries are very dear to my heart,” he said. “It’s a very personal matter and we’re here to help heal people, first and foremost.
The company’s motto is bold:
“Prevacus is in the business of stopping the effects of concussions, which will prevent CTE.”
Ideally, the drug could be administered by an athletic trainer, an emergency medical technician, a medic, a school nurse or other health provider as soon as possible after a brain injury has been suffered.
The drug can be safely administered twice a day for 14 days, said VanLandingham, who envisions it might one day be available over the counter and carried by parents, youth league coaches and others.
“It gets into your brain in less than five minutes,” VanLandingham said. “It diffuses throughout all areas of your brain in less than 30 minutes. It reduces swelling, inflammation and what’s known as oxidated stress all at the same time.”
Warner estimated he suffered four concussions playing football, but his interest in Prevacus goes beyond sports. His oldest son, Zachary, suffered a traumatic brain injury as an infant and is visually impaired and developmentally disabled.
“Just thinking of how things might be different for Zach or families likes ours if Prevacus can do what we think it will do is a huge motivating factor,” Warner said.
Warner isn’t the only former NFL quarterback intrigued by the drug’s potential. Quarterbacks Brett Favre has promoted the drug, as has former professional soccer player Abby Wambach and baseball player David Ross.
But it’s unknown if the drug will work on humans. Testing has been approved, and the company is in the process of raising the $3.5 million it costs to run the first phase of human trials.
VanLandingham is hopeful that testing will begin by Labor Day. If the first phase goes well, there will be additional testing; it would be at least three years before the drug is on the market.
Those are huge hurdles to clear, however.
Dr. Javier Cárdenas, a neurologist at Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix, said Prevasol is a derivative of progesterone, a female hormone. Progesterone has shown some promise as a treatment for mild traumatic head injury, but tests on large-scale tests humans have not borne that out.
“It’s going to be hard from a trial standpoint, from a scientific standpoint, to demonstrate that there is a substantial benefit over the traditional rest, recovery and rehabilitation protocols that are out there now,” Cárdenas said.
Dr. Vernon Williams, a sports neurologist and director of the Center for Sports Neurology and Pain Medicine at the Cedars-Sinai Kerlan-Jobe institute in Los Angeles, called what Prevacus is doing “important work.”
Doctors are more aggressive in treating the symptoms of concussion, such as headaches and dizziness, than they were 10 years ago, Williams said, but there is no drug that “treats the underlying mechanism” that cause those symptoms.
“That’s why this work is important,” he said of Prevacus. “Hopefully, we’ll derive some benefit in humans. The reality is there is still a long way to go determining if this is helpful at all in humans. There is still, in my opinion, lots and lots and lots of work to do.”
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