UC President Janet Napolitano hands UCSF graduate student David Wu his prize as second place winner of the 2019 Grad Slam competition.

UCSF Student Takes Second in Grad Slam

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Graduate Division

You don’t have to be a football player to get a concussion, anyone can sustain a brain injury. But similar to football players your brain injury might go undetected for years. Now, innovative research might soon be able to detect a brain injury with a few simple steps.

David Wu, an MD/PhD student in the Medical Scientist Training Program, won second place and $3,000 for his engaging, three-minute presentation on a blood test used to uncover concussions in this year’s UC wide Grad Slam competition on Friday, May 10.

Wu qualified for the UC-wide Grad Slam last March after winning first place and $4,000 in the UCSF Grad Slam.

“We still have a lot of work to do,” said Wu during his UC-wide presentation. “We hope this brought us one step closer to the blood test we sorely need. Something everyone can take if they hit their head.”

Wu’s research uses an old method in a new way. Twenty years ago, a simple blood test revolutionized the way heart attacks were detected when a unique molecule from the heart was caught leaking into the blood after heart attacks.

“If that showed up on a blood test, doctors know this is serious,” Wu said.

What if concussions leaked a unique molecule as well?

“Here is a surprise, this actually worked,” he said.

Wu, along with Daniel Lim, MD, PhD, and Geoffrey Manley, MD, PhD, turned to the human meninges — the soft brain covering that “often gets overlooked because it seems really boring,” Wu said.

“We think it's the perfect sensor for a mechanical head injury. It is thin, delicate, and while the brain is sealed from the blood but a barrier that can leak right into circulation.”

An analysis of the human meninges using high resolution for the first time uncovered new molecules found nowhere else in the body. And those molecules were spotted spilling into the blood after a concussion.

So even if a CAT scan didn’t catch it, “the molecules are there telling us, hey, this is serious,” Wu said.

UC President Janet Napolitano announced Wu as the second place winner, and handed him an oversized check for $3,000, before turning to the first place winner.

The Slammy Award and $6,000 top prize this year went to UC Davis’ Katie Murphy for her presentation, Feeling sick: How corn makes its own medicine.

Murphy’s research in the Zerbe Lab in the Department of Plant Biology shows how chemical compounds help corn defend itself against pathogens. Her presentation stressed the importance of bolstering the world’s food supply and protecting it from disease.