Research at the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine at Virginia Tech may one day change the future for patients with traumatic brain injuries, thanks to a graduate student’s prestigious grant recognition.

Benjamin Okyere, a Ph.D. student in biomedical and veterinary sciences, is just the ninth student from Virginia Tech to earn the Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). His research focuses on adaptive brain and behavior as it relates to people who experience strokes and ways to help increase life expectancy after such an event.

Okyere’s three-year, $116,000 National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke grant will advance research on stroke, which is the fifth leading cause of death in the United States. He studies in the laboratory of Michelle Theus, assistant professor of molecular and cellular neurobiology in the Department of Biomedical Sciences and Pathobiology, and says the grant is the result of hard work and Theus’ mentorship.

“It’s an exceptional opportunity. The grant will open a lot of doors and is a confirmation of the great science research happening in the lab,” said Okyere, who hails from Ghana. “The training foundation by the Virginia Tech Initiative for Maximizing Student Development Scholars (IMSD) also emboldened my candidacy for the pre-doctoral fellowship grant.”

The grant will help Okyere better understand how an ischemic stroke induces active outward growth and remodeling of “pre-existing” replacement or collateral vessels into functional conduits — a process known as arteriogenesis — for blood reperfusion and drug delivery. An ischemic stroke is the most common form of stroke and involves an obstruction within a vessel supplying blood to the brain. The extent of the brain’s collateral network varies from individual to individual and has a significant impact on the brain’s ability to recover from stroke.

“Our goal is to find therapeutic targets aimed at ameliorating the neurological deficits after a stroke,” Okyere said. “Precisely, enhancing arteriogenesis is a novel therapeutic approach for restoring blood flow in patients with limited arteriogenic potential after vascular obstruction.”

The research is important because it could potentially change the way stroke patients are treated. An ischemic stroke occurs in 87 percent of stroke cases but the only FDA approved drug effectively treats about 4 to 7 percent of this ailing population.

“Our aim is to increase the therapeutic approaches administered after the acute phase of this debilitating disease,” Okyere said.

A successful therapy could extend life expectancy of people who suffer from strokes. Okyere is studying a novel growth and guidance molecule that restricts collateral development and injury-induced remodeling in the brain. His research seeks to identify key cell-signaling pathways involved in orchestrating the dynamic process of collateral remodeling. Last year, Theus received a $1.7 million NIH grant for similar research on traumatic brain injury.

According to Okyere, the overarching goal of the research is to reduce the disease burden and improve neurological recovery for individuals suffering from stroke and other vascular occlusive diseases.

The National Research Service Award fellowship will enable Okyere to gain the necessary training in neurovascular biology across several models of brain injury. It also provides a stipend and travel support to national meetings to share the outcomes of his pre-doctoral research.

Read more about Okyere’s research on traumatic brain injuries in the latest issue of the veterinary college’s TRACKS magazine.

Written by Carrie Cousins

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