NFL Grant Supports Gene Therapy Study to Benefit Athletes


Erin D. McKenzie

A treatment being developed by two University of Houston researchers could allow athletes playing in the National Football League a faster return to the field after injury.

With the support of $118,693 in grant funding from National Football League Charities, Daniel Martinez and David Zimmerman will investigate the use of gene therapy to heal damaged ligament.

One of four ligaments critical to the stability of the knee joint, Martinez and Zimmerman’s research will focus on the repair of the medial collateral ligament —most often injured by a sideways blow to the knee. Their study could mean injuries involving this connective tissue would heal stronger, healthier and more rapidly than methods to date.

“The ultimate goal of gene-based delivery is to produce therapeutic protein in sufficient quantity at the appropriate site to promote a physiological response,” said Martinez, associate professor in the department of health and human performance and the Cullen College’s biomedical engineering program. “If ligament healing could be accelerated with a non-pathogenic IGF-1 gene therapy treatment in lieu of total reconstructive surgery, or used as a supplement to reconstructive surgeries, then the time to complete healing and tissue remodeling would reduce the time off the field for the athlete and prevent residual inflammatory tissue diseases.”

Martinez, the lead investigator, and co-investigator, David Zimmerman, professor and associate chairman of mechanical engineering, were awarded the 18-month grant in late October. It is among $1.5 million in funding given annually by NFL Charities to support sports-related medical research, said Lynda Hamilton, a spokeswoman for the organization. Funding this year assisted 17 projects across the country.

Martinez and Zimmerman’s experimental therapy would combine the use of self-complementary adeno associate virus with insulin-like growth factor (IGF-1), a gene the body produces normally to heal wounds and grow tissue.

Rats would be administered the combination directly at the injury site. In order to do so, fibroblasts— a cell common in the connective tissues of animals—would be genetically engineered in the rats to secrete the combination within the knee.

“We will study the impact of using the body’s own ligament fibroblast cells bioengineered to produce a ligament tissue that will repair and remodel faster during wound healing,” Martinez said. “Very few comprehensive studies have been performed investigating the effects of insulin-like growth factor (IGF-1) in connective tissue repair. It could mean a greatly reduced rehabilitation time with greater tissue strength and reduced risks of re-injury.”

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