Nursing professor’s discoveries could be a boost for stroke patients

When a stroke occurs, the horn blows, the clock starts, and the race is on. Within minutes, brain cells can begin to die. It happens quickly, but the damage is lasting.

An overwhelming majority of strokes – 87 percent – are the result of a blood clot in an artery.

Prompt and proper treatment is crucial because studies show that patients who receive the clotbusting drug tPA within an hour of symptom onset recover faster and are less likely to suffer from severe disability. But the therapeutic benefit declines over time and is less effective at four-and-a-half hours.

In this race, the track is short.

Taura Barr, PhD, RN, an assistant professor at the WVU School of Nursing, has been searching for a way to give patients a head start since she was a graduate student in rotation in the intensive care unit.

“I wanted to improve care for stroke patients,” she said. “But I was frustrated because there were no tools to provide rapid, accurate diagnosis.”

The first step is to determine if the patient is actually having a stroke, rather than symptoms that mimic stroke, Dr. Barr explained. The second step is to determine when symptoms began.

Barr’s discoveries could be the boost that patients need to beat the clock.

When a stroke begins, the body’s immune system turns on “signatures” in the blood – biomarkers – that can be traced over time. Barr has identified these genomic biomarkers to assess strokes and predict stroke recovery with significant certainty. She has also identified a separate genomic profile in the blood that determines the time of stroke symptom onset.

“Used together, these discoveries are extremely powerful,” she said. “We will be
able to treat stroke personally, determining which therapies will be most effective for each patient.”

Stroke is the third leading cause of death in West Virginia, behind heart disease
and cancer. Barr said the tool could help hospitals in rural areas offer better care for their stroke patients.

“The majority of clinicians in the state do not have access to the expertise and technology that is available at stroke centers,” she said. “Every day they must determine if their patients should be transferred from their community hospitals to these centers.”

Simply put, access to a point-of-care tool that provides clinically actionable information could change the way stroke is treated in remote areas.

Barr and Richard Giersch — both native West Virginians — created a startup, life sciences company CereDx to develop and market a stroke diagnosis tool.

Ceredex has licensed the technology for the prediction of stroke symptom onset time from WVU, and they have submitted an application to license the technology for stroke diagnosis from the National Institutes of Health.

“We are still in the formative stages,” she said. “But we are optimistic about the significant impact that our work could have on the way stroke patients are diagnosed and treated.

“As a student, I saw a real world problem that I wanted to help solve. Now as a professor at WVU, it is rewarding to be able to translate my research into a tool that can help save lives.”

Barr and her team were awarded the Early Career Innovation Award at WVU’s 2014
Innovation Awards.