Georgene Hergenroeder’s research emphasis is on protein biomarker discovery in spinal cord and brain injury. Her current focus is on the discovery of autoantibodies after human spinal cord injury (SCI) and traumatic brain injury (TBI). Activation of an autoimmune response which generates autoantibodies is a potential contributor to secondary injury and an impediment to recovery from SCI and/or TBI.
Historically, it was thought that the injured central nervous system and the immune system worked in unison in attempt to heal the injury. However, recently we have discovered that the immune response may be destructive after injury. Experimental studies have shown that SCI can initiate a B-cell-mediated autoimmune response leading to autoantibody production. In an effort to identify autoantibodies that may contribute to human SCI pathology, she uses human samples collected from injured patients to identify antibody profile changes. Potential autoantigens are then identified using molecular biology techniques. Her recent studies showed peptides that mapped to glial fibrillary acidic protein (GFAP) as a potential autoantigen in 22% of her post-acute SCI subjects. Previous studies have reported that the GFAP protein can be detected in plasma of SCI patients after injury. A release of GFAP into the systemic circulation can elicit an immune response. Alternatively, an immune response could have been initiated within the injured spinal cord itself where the blood-spinal cord barrier is disrupted and the concentration of released GFAP/GFAP breakdown products are likely to be substantially higher.
GFAP autoantibodies in SCI patients may interfere with the ability of GFAP to assemble into its functional filamentous structure, resulting in malfunctioning astrocytes. As astrocytes are closely linked to blood-spinal cord barrier function, this could lead to prolonged disruption of barrier function. Additionally, impaired astrocyte function may hinder removal of extracellular glutamate, which could worsen tissue damage. Conversely, GFAP autoantibodies could serve a protective role by limiting glial scar formation, a deterrent to axonal regeneration post-SCI. Future studies will address these possibilities.
In addition to her translational research, she has developed and is the director and Co-PI of the HOPES Trial, an international, multicenter study to determine whether mild hypothermia improves the 6 month outcome of acute traumatic subdural hematoma patients. Sample analysis in this study will evaluate the effect of hypothermia on specific TBI biomarkers.
Her laboratory includes a talented team of translational scientists and clinicians.
Georgene Hergenroeder, BSN, MHA, RN, CCRC, is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Neurosurgery at The University of Texas Medical School at Houston. She is also the Director of the Vivian L. Smith Neuroscience Research Repository; The Innovation and Quality Program; and The National Center for Testing Treatments in Chronic Spinal Cord Injury and Traumatic Brain Injury (NCTT)
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