Ex-NFL star working on 'intercellular' helmet to curb concussions, CTE

By Alex Butler
Seattle Seahawks linebackers Barkevious Mingo (51) and Bobby Wagner (51) team up to tackle Los Angeles Rams wide receiver Cooper Kupp (18) on October 7 in Seattle. File Photo by Jim Bryant/UPI
Seattle Seahawks linebackers Barkevious Mingo (51) and Bobby Wagner (51) team up to tackle Los Angeles Rams wide receiver Cooper Kupp (18) on October 7 in Seattle. File Photo by Jim Bryant/UPI | License Photo

Dec. 26 (UPI) -- Nick Lowery says the movie Concussion accurately portrays brain injuries and the toll they take on players in the National Football League.

The former All-Pro kicker watched numerous friends and teammates debilitated by concussions, including friend Mike Webster, who was found to have Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy and died at age 50.


Lowery also watched friends Junior Seau, Ken Stabler and Dave Duerson die with CTE. Now he's working to save lives. A teammate with Webster for two seasons on the Kansas City Chiefs, he's working with Kannalife Sciences to create an intercellular helmet. The company is also doing research to develop cannabinoid-based treatments for CTE. Cannabinoids are naturally occurring compounds found in cannabis.

"How can we allow this to happen? And it's not because football is the worst sport. It's the best sport ... but the bottom line is how can we let this happen to future Mike Websters," Lowery told UPI. "What can we do to make sure this doesn't happen and preserve this game? Who are the stewards of the game if it's not us?"


Kannalife Sciences has an exclusive patent for commercialization of CBD research for CTE. Lowery said he is hopeful the company is close to implementing products that will be measurable and reduce the time it takes to recover from concussions and the number of concussions.

The NFL reported a 13.5 percent increase in diagnosed concussions from 2016 to 2017. The league announced in October that concussions during the 2018 preseason were down 13 percent.

Several studies have been published regarding the hits that lead to brain injuries and possibly CTE, including a 2017 Boston University report which found 110 of 111 brains of former NFL players it examined had the degenerative disease linked to repeated blows to the head.

Inside the helmet

The NFL pledged $100 million in 2016 to support independent medical research and engineering advancements in neuroscience-related topics and has made nearly 50 rule changes since 2002 with the aim of player safety. The league devoted $60 million of its pledge toward technological research, including attempts to improve helmet safety and the other $40 million toward the funding of medical research on head injuries.

But Lowery said those figures should have been flipped.


"There should be an extra $20 million focused on this intercellular helmet," he said. "If we do that, we will have tremendous impact to bring these products to the market more quickly."

Dr. Erin Manning, a neurologist at Hospital for Special Surgery, said she believes the league's changes are a step in the right direction.

"The biggest part of all of this is education and the fact that the athletes are more aware of the symptoms and what to expect," she told UPI. "I think a lot of this depends on their reporting of the symptoms. If you can't get the athletes to buy into all of it, then all of the awareness you can have is not going to be helpful."

Manning said improved helmet safety can help, but is just one of several measures needed.

"If you have the right type of helmets, there are some that can probably be prevented," Manning said. "But there are some that, even if you have the best helmet, it's not going to prevent every concussion because some of them don't even depend on a direct blow to the head. Like a blow to the neck or a secondary problem that involves transmission of the force to the brain. The helmet isn't the only answer."


A gridiron car crash

NFL collisions are similar to car crashes. Two fast-moving parties smashing together, smashing their pads and sometimes smacking heads that results in brain injuries. A 2014 study reported in the American Surgeon suggested that THC can protect neurons during traumatic brain injuries, like those caused by traffic accidents.

Trauma surgeon David Plurad led a review of 446 traumatic brain injury cases at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center from January 2010 through December 2012, finding that the patients who tested positive for THC had a mortality rate of 2.4 percent, while those who did not have THC in their system had a mortality rate nearly five times higher.

Dr. Bennett Omalu -- portrayed by Will Smith in Concussion -- is credited with discovering CTE during a 2002 autopsy of Webster.

"Whenever you engage in any human activity whereby your head is exposed to repeated blows, there is a 100 percent risk exposure to permanent brain damage," Omalu told MSNBC in 2017.

CTE is only one of the diseases associated with brain damage stemming from repeated blows to the human head.

Lowery said Kannalife Sciences is poised to do human research and prove its findings to the Food and Drug Administration. He said the FDA "needs to see that the neuroplasticity or independence of individual neurons protects [the brain] so it literally becomes an intercellular helmet."


Manning said there needs to be more tests developed to diagnose concussions and CBD research is still in the early stages.

"That's the most important thing, if there is some objective test that can be developed that can diagnose via blood test or a certain kind of brain imaging," Manning said. "That would be very helpful and probably one of the more valuable things that can be done at this point, other than prevention."

Will Smith (R) and Dr. Bennet Omalu attend a screening of the motion picture sports drama "Concussion" in 2015 at Regency Village Theatre in the Westwood section of Los Angeles. File photo by Jim Ruymen/UPI

Breaking the pattern

Lowery has seen it repeatedly -- the pattern of pain leading his football friends to opioids, alcohol, addiction and death. That pain led Webster to sometime tase himself into unconsciousness in order to sleep. The pattern ultimately led to the loss of "Iron Mike" and so many others.

Kannalife neuro-pharmacologist Dr. Douglas Brenneman told Dateline NBC in May CBD could have the capacity to overturn the opioid epidemic. There were more than 70,000 drug overdose deaths in the United States in 2017, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.


While Lowery is working to reduce concussions, another former teammate of Webster's has decided to take on CTE and the science surrounding it.

Longtime Pittsburgh Steelers running back Merril Hoge co-authored a book, Brainwashed: The Bad Science Behind CTE and the Plot to Destroy Football!. Lowery -- who is friends with Hoge -- said he hasn't finished the book, but he doesn't think the discussion and ongoing research regarding brain injuries associated with football are hurting the game.

Hoge suffered 12 concussions during his football career and retired at age 29. He later won a lawsuit against the Chicago Bears' former team doctor after a judge ruled he failed to warn Hoge about the severity of his brain injuries during his career.

"What's hurting the game is simply not figuring out how we reduce the impact of concussions and these hits that are part of football ... There is very consistent and powerful evidence that we are on the right track," Lowery said. "It's not about demonizing the game. The game is very healthy, but it has a sickness we have to take care of for its long-term health."


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