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Renowned neuroscientist joins ETSU's Quillen College of Medicine, brings two NIH grants

June 4th, 2014 9:32 am by Contributed to the Press

Renowned neuroscientist joins ETSU's Quillen College of Medicine, brings two NIH grants

Dr. Theo Hagg is Quillen's chair of Biomedical Sciences. (Contributed)

A neuroscientist known for his research on spinal cord injuries, adult stem cells, and strokes has joined the administrative staff at East Tennessee State University’s James H. Quillen College of Medicine.

Dr. Theo Hagg is Quillen’s chair of Biomedical Sciences. He came to ETSU from the University of Louisville, where he was an endowed professor and served as associate scientific director of the Kentucky Spinal Cord Injury Research Center.

He grew up in Pretoria, South Africa, and holds two doctorates. His first, a doctor of medicine, was earned at the University of Leiden in The Netherlands. He was later awarded a Ph.D. degree from the University of California, San Diego.

At ETSU, Hagg’s laboratory will continue work on two research initiatives, funded by grants from the National Institutes of Health. For almost 30 years, Hagg has done research to develop drug treatments for brain and spinal cord disorders.

In collaboration with colleagues at the University of Louisville, Hagg received NIH grant funding of almost $200,000 per year, starting 12 years ago, to examine the effect of spinal cord injuries on small blood vessels in the damaged area.

“Our focus is what happens immediately after the injury,” Hagg said. “Over the first day after the injury, small blood vessels die. We are looking at why the secondary degeneration progresses. Why, we ask, do endothelial cells die? What growth factors are lacking? It’s vital to try to rescue cells within the first 24 hours.”

Hagg’s research involves exploration of a drug that could be introduced intravenously to rescue blood vessels, thereby reducing tissue loss and improving neurological function.

“Time is critical,” Hagg said. “Intravenous injection can be done easily and quickly, and it gets to the endothelial cells, which are the first to die.”

Hagg’s other NIH grant, recently renewed in the amount of approximately $300,000 annually for the next five years, deals with stem cells that reside in the brain. 

“Could we actually use these stem cells to coax them to make more brain cells?” Hagg asks. “Ultimately, could we then replace the lost cells after a stroke?”

Hagg says researchers could easily spend the next 50 years studying how cells respond to stroke, all with the intention of improving neurological function using medical drugs that stimulate this repair process.

“Specifically, we are working to identify molecules in the brain that replicate new cell formation from stem cells.”

Despite the demands of running such a large department at the ETSU Quillen College of Medicine, Hagg says of his career path, “I will always be a neuroscientist.”

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