Health and medicine – On Wisconsin https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com For UW-Madison Alumni and Friends Tue, 13 Nov 2018 19:28:16 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=4.9.8 Stem Cells at 20 https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/features/stem-cells-at-20/ https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/features/stem-cells-at-20/#respond Mon, 05 Nov 2018 20:41:22 +0000 https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/?p=24361 In the lab dish, a human embryonic stem cell can live forever. If the conditions are right, the cell will divide endlessly, providing a limitless supply of the blank-slate cells now used widely in biomedical science.

Immortality is an astonishing quality, certainly, but the feature of stem cells that has most captured the public’s imagination since they were first cultured at UW–Madison 20 years ago is the ability to manipulate them to become any of the myriad cells in the human body. The idea that specialized cells could be whipped up in large quantities to treat any number of afflictions — from dopaminergic cells for Parkinson’s to islet cells for diabetes — is a powerful one.

“For the first time, we had unlimited access to all of the basic cellular building blocks of the human body,” says James Thomson, the UW developmental biologist who first derived the original cells in 1998. “And if you make an embryonic stem cell line, that’s infinite. You can make as many cells as you want.”

But two decades on, stem cells have yet to live up to that grand clinical aspiration. Embryonic and now genetically induced stem cells from adult tissue have become lab workhorses and underpin the new field of stem cell and regenerative medicine. Worldwide, there is a score of clinical trials using stem cells, including trials for heart disease, the blinding disease macular degeneration, and spinal cord injury. And some of those trials are using the original cells Thomson made.

“I think where things are right now is pretty promising,” Thomson says. “There are a number of trials underway. Most will fail because clinical trials are hard, but some will succeed. The whole field just needs one to work.”

Stem Cells 101

Illustration of sperm fertilizing an egg

1.

Sperm fertilizes an egg. Illustration of fertilized egg starting to divide

2.

The fertilized egg begins to divide. Illustration of fertilized egg divided in to many cells

3.

Within five to seven days, the fertilized egg has divided into 100 cells (a blastocyst), containing cells that would form an embryo. The UW’s James Thomson used blastocysts produced through in vitro fertilization (IVF) and donated for research purposes. Illustration of cells in culture dish

4.

Those cells are placed in a culture dish, where they continue to divide, becoming what’s known as a stem cell line. Illustration of cells in multiple culture dishes

5.

The dividing cluster of cells is removed and separated into new culture dishes before it can become different types of cells. There, the cells continue to divide and remain stem cells. Illustration of cells in culture dish

6.

Researchers use biological and chemical signals to coax stem cells — the Swiss Army knife of cells — into becoming various kinds of cells.

Illustration showing multiple types of cells created through stem cells7.

Stem cells provide a limitless source of cells that scienists hope will one day be used for therapy to treat conditions including heart disease, diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, spinal cord injury, and macular degeneration.

Global reach

5
The number of original stem cell lines

5,200
The number of times the original five stem cell lines have been distributed around the world to:
2,350 investigators | 820 institutions | 45 countries

$1.43 billion
U.S. funding for stem cell research (1998–2017)

1,300+
U.S. scientists work with any of the original embryonic stem cell lines

UW–Madison IMPACT

284
stem cell–related patents have been issued to the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (May 2018)

685
people — faculty, staff, and students — work with stem cells on the UW campus

$75M
Grants supporting stem cell projects at the UW (fiscal year 2017)

10
Wisconsin companies are devising stem cell–based products, mostly used to test drugs in lieu of using research animals

Then and now

The UW’s Thomson had high hopes for the technology in 1998. Today, he remains convinced that the legacy of stem cells will not necessarily be as therapy for replacing diseased or damaged cells, but in basic understanding of human development and — using engineered stem cells from patients — the cause of cell-based diseases, including diabetes, Parkinson’s, and ALS.

1998: Stem cell predictions

  • Revolutionize basic research and understanding of human and animal development
  • Use to screen drugs before using in humans
  • Develop treatments — including tranplants and replacement of diseased cells and neurons — within 10 years

2018: Stem cell reality

  • Use to study basic development and to model diseases in the laboratory
  • Test the good and bad effects of potential new drugs on human cells, rather than in animal models
  • The first clinical trials for treating condtions like spinal cord injury, eye disease, heart disease, and Parkinson’s are underway; therapeutic applications of stem cells have not yet been realized
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Suicide Prevention https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/conversation/suicide-prevention/ https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/conversation/suicide-prevention/#respond Mon, 05 Nov 2018 20:30:15 +0000 https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/?p=24305 Suicide rates have increased 25 percent over the last two decades, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report released the same week that celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain and fashion designer Kate Spade took their own lives. As the UW’s suicide prevention coordinator, Valerie Donovan ’11, MA’12 is developing proactive policies and coordinating resources and support networks across campus.

Why are we having a national conversation about suicide prevention now? Why not years ago?

It’s a couple of different things. One is that [the] CDC report gave us some data that shows this is a concerning trend … [and] that we don’t know as much as we should and we need to do better. Secondly, I think [with] recent celebrity suicides, [combined] with social media and 24-hour news cycles, there’s just been a lot [more] attention and discussion. The third element that is actually important and powerful is that people are becoming more and more comfortable talking about mental health … and I see this reflected on our campus, where we do have some data about decreases in stigma.

If we’re discussing and researching suicide prevention more, why are suicide rates still rising?

That’s a complex question and I don’t have a single answer for that. One thing that we’re taking a look [at] intentionally on campus right now, and that other groups are doing, too, is thinking about means restriction and environmental safety. In Wisconsin, firearms are the leading means for suicide. We know that access to lethal means increases suicide risk. So we can do a lot of great work in prevention and education and in how we communicate about suicide, but it’s also important that we’re thinking about things like access to lethal means and some of those other environmental strategies.

How can we address suicide as a public health issue on campus?

Relationships are foundational to effective prevention. When I think about changing the culture, especially in a complex system like UW–Madison, I often come back to this quote that I heard: “Change happens at the speed of trust.” So having those trusting relationships with [campus and community] partners is foundational to moving the needle on some of these big, complex issues.

What should I do if I’m worried a loved one is at risk?

Warning signs look different from person to person. I tell people to trust your gut, and if something seems like it might be off, it’s always worth checking in with your friends and loved ones. [Respond by] practicing empathy, listening without judgment, asking open-ended questions, validating, and recognizing how challenging that must be for that person. It’s also really important, if you’re concerned about suicide, to ask directly about it. A lot of people are worried that if [you ask], that might put the idea in their head. But research shows that’s actually an effective prevention strategy that makes you a safe person to talk to about those feelings.

Interview conducted, edited, and condensed by Nina Bertelsen x’19

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Laurel Clark ’83, MD’87 https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/honor-roll/laurel-clark-83-md87/ https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/honor-roll/laurel-clark-83-md87/#respond Mon, 05 Nov 2018 20:30:15 +0000 https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/?p=24432 Laurel Clark wearing NASA uniform poses in front of American flag

Astronaut Laurel Clark died in the space shuttle Columbia disaster. She is one of many Badgers featured in the Wisconsin Alumni Association’s Alumni Park. Courtesy of NASA

She died doing something she loved. We often console ourselves with that thought when someone perishes tragically.

And so it was with the adventure-loving Laurel Salton Clark ’83, MD’87. She had come to space travel later in life than most astronauts, following her work as an undersea medical officer and flight surgeon in the U.S. Navy. Her first assignment was on the Columbia space shuttle in 2003, conducting some of the crew’s more than 80 experiments. She was studying gravity and its effect on humans, and she gardened in space to study gene transfer in plants.

But the mission suddenly ended in disaster when the Columbia disintegrated after 15 days in space — and just 16 minutes before its scheduled landing. At age 41, Clark died along with six crewmates as America watched in horror.

Although busy conducting experiments during the mission, Clark marveled over all that she could see from the space shuttle. “I have seen some incredible sights: lightning spreading over the Pacific, the Aurora Australis lighting up the entire visible horizon with the city glow of Australia below … rivers breaking through tall mountain passes, the scars of humanity … a crescent moon setting over the limb of our blue planet,” she wrote in a final email sent to her family from space. “Whenever I do get to look out, it is glorious. Even the stars have a special brightness.”

During a memorial at Johnson Space Center after the loss, President George W. Bush recounted a story that captured an astronaut who — while helping to open doors for women in space exploration — was also very down to earth: “A friend who heard Laurel speaking to Mission Control said there was a smile in her voice.”

Clark knew the risks of space travel, yet she fully embraced the chance to be a scientist and foster her sense of wonder. Describing a silkworm cocoon that had hatched in space, she said, “There was a moth in there, and it still had its wings crumpled up, and it was just starting to pump its wings up. Life continues in lots of places, and life is a magical thing.”

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Five Badger Standouts https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/features/five-badger-standouts/ https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/features/five-badger-standouts/#respond Mon, 05 Nov 2018 20:30:15 +0000 https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/?p=24416 With more than 440,000 living alumni and a top-tier reputation, UW–Madison has no shortage of exceptional graduates. Selecting the superlative among this crowd is no easy task, but the Wisconsin Alumni Association has offered Distinguished Alumni Awards annually since 1936. This year, WAA’s highest honor acknowledges five alumni who have made stellar contributions to their professions, their communities, and their alma mater.

Carol Edler Baumann ’54

As a former U.S. State Department staffer and board member for numerous diplomatic organizations, Carol Baumann built a network of professional relationships “that helped bring the world to Milwaukee,” according to a longtime colleague.

Baumann earned her doctorate from the London School of Economics and was a professor of political science at UW–Madison and UW–Milwaukee. In 1979, President Carter appointed her to serve as U.S. deputy assistant secretary for the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research.

At UW–Milwaukee, she directed the international relations major for 17 years and the Institute of World Affairs for 33 years. Baumann built the institute into one of the best of its kind while continuing to teach and inspire students to pursue careers in international affairs and global business. She was the first host of the institute’s television program, International Focus, which is still broadcast on Milwaukee public TV. Baumann also hosted the Dialogues with Diplomats series, which drew ambassadors and other high-ranking officials from around the world, including President Bill Clinton and former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.

In 1958 she ran for Congress in Wisconsin’s Ninth Congressional District. Her extensive professional affiliations included the Council on Foreign Relations, the Wisconsin Governor’s Commission on the United Nations, and the National Foreign Policy Association.

Baumann helped facilitate cross-participation in international programming between the Milwaukee and Madison campuses, and she helped to forge a connection between the European Union and the international studies programs at UW–Madison. She retired in 1995 as a UW–Milwaukee professor emerita. Baumann published a novel, Journeys of the Mind, based on her travels and career.

John Bollinger ’57, PhD’61

As dean of the College of Engineering (CoE) from 1981 to 1999, John Bollinger presided over the creation of a familiar college landmark — the Maquina sculpture and fountain on Engineering Mall.

It was just one element of the $16 million CoE expansion to Engineering Hall in 1993. Bollinger’s 18-year tenure as dean also saw many other innovations, including a renovation of the materials science building and a new freshman course that assigned a real-world engineering project from design to final product. The college also instituted several annual competitions that encourage students to invent, patent, and commercialize their own technology. After retiring as dean, he created a new course, Technology Innovation and Entrepreneurship.

Bollinger served as director of the Data Acquisition and Simulation Laboratory and as chair of the Department of Mechanical Engineering before becoming dean. He was a Fulbright Fellow in 1962 and 1980 and he coauthored two textbooks. Among his many patents, he invented a noise-quality detector for electric motors and an automated welder that helped Milwaukee’s A. O. Smith Company in manufacturing automobile frames. He founded and served as editor of the Journal of Manufacturing Systems.

He has served on the board of numerous companies, including Nicolet Instrument Corporation, Unico Incorporated, Kohler Company, and Berbee Information Networks. Bollinger is a member of the National Academy of Engineering, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, and the American Society for Engineering Education.

A Bascom Hill Society member, he has also generously supported the college financially. In honor of his parents, he established the UW’s Bollinger Academic Staff Distinguished Achievement Award.

He also established several engineering student scholarships.

George Hamel Jr. ’80

When the California wildfires swept through wine country last fall, George and Pam Hamel, co-owners of Hamel Family Wines in the Sonoma Valley, sprang into action. They quickly organized and hosted a benefit with singer John Fogerty in support of wine country wildfire relief, raising more than $1.2 million. For the Hamels, who lost their own home in the fire, it was a typical act of generosity.

The Hamel family, which includes three generations of UW–Madison alumni (and a Badger alum daughter-in-law), has been extraordinarily generous across the campus. They provided the $15 million lead gift for the new Hamel Music Center on campus, as well as the founding gift for SuccessWorks at the College of Letters & Science. They have been longtime supporters of the communication arts department and have provided major gifts to the Department of Athletics, the Garding Against Cancer initiative, the Office of Student Financial Aid, the Memorial Union, and several other UW programs.

Before becoming a vintner, George was a founder and served as COO of ValueAct Capital, a San Francisco–based investment firm.

For the Van Hise Society member, his support of the university has extended to giving generously of his time and advice. He serves on the Chancellor’s Advisory Board, the Communication Arts Partners, and the Garding Against Cancer steering committee, and he previously served on the UW Foundation board of directors and the College of Letters & Science board of visitors.

Ann McKee ’75

Ann McKee has studied hundreds of individuals diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) and is the leading researcher on the degenerative brain disease. CTE is triggered by repetitive blows to the head and is most commonly found in athletes participating in boxing, football, ice hockey, and other contact sports, as well as military veterans. CTE causes symptoms such as cognitive impairment, depression, memory loss, aggression, and suicidal behavior. McKee was lead author on a 2017 study that found that CTE had been diagnosed in 110 of 111 former NFL players whose brains were donated for research.

She has presented her findings to NFL officials and testified many times before Congress. Her research was highlighted on the Frontline special “League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis,” as well as in the New York Times, TIME, Sports Illustrated, the Boston Globe, CBS’s 60 Minutes, CNN, NPR, and other outlets.

McKee is a professor of neurology and pathology at Boston University School of Medicine and directs its CTE Center. She’s also the director of the brain banks at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Boston Healthcare System, the Boston University Alzheimer’s Disease Center, and the Framingham Heart Study.

Her game-changing findings continue to make headlines. Her data show that it’s actually repetitive small blows to the head, rather than big, concussion-inducing hits, that have the strongest link to CTE — and that has the potential to drastically change the game of football as we know it today.

In 2018, she received a lifetime achievement award for Alzheimer’s disease research from the Alzheimer’s Association, and she was named by TIME magazine as one of the “100 Most Influential People in the World.”

Allan Chi Yun Wong MS’73

Allan Chi Yun Wong is the founder, chair, and group CEO of the Hong Kong–based company VTech, one of the top 50 electronics manufacturers globally, with more than $1.8 billion in revenue.

After a brief stint at National Cash Register Company, Wong started VTech in 1976 as an electronics company that designed and manufactured home-gaming consoles, including Pong (an early video game based on table tennis).

In its first year, the company expanded from an initial investment of $40,000 to an annual revenue of just under $1 million. Under Wong’s direction, the company later focused on producing children’s learning products and cordless phones. In 1998, Business Week included him on its “World’s Top 25 Executives” list.

Wong serves on the board of China-Hongkong Photo Products Holdings Limited and Li and Fung Limited, and he’s also the deputy chairman and director of the Bank of East Asia, the third largest bank in Hong Kong. His government honored him with the Gold Bauhinia Star in 2008, and the United Kingdom gave him its Most Excellent Order of the British Empire award in 1997. He has an honorary doctorate from the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, and he served as a keynote speaker at the March 2017 Hong Kong chapter UW alumni event.

In 2016, Wong told CNN, “You don’t go into business to make money. You need to love your business, and you need to have passion, and you need to really want to make a difference in people’s lives. And making money is a byproduct, not the sole purpose.”

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Chris Linehan Freytag ’87 https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/recognition/chris-linehan-freytag-87/ https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/recognition/chris-linehan-freytag-87/#respond Mon, 05 Nov 2018 20:30:15 +0000 https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/?p=24429 Chris Linehan Freytag leads outdoor yoga class

amphotography

Chris Linehan Freytag ’87’s first aerobics class at the UW, which she took back in the ’80s, inspired a lifelong passion for exercise — and that has led to an online fitness empire. Freytag is the founder and CEO of GetHealthyU.com, a digital publishing company based in the Minneapolis suburbs. It encompasses a website, blog, newsletters, social media, and a subscription-based workout service that reaches more than 2 million women a month.

Although Freytag’s first job after college was in direct-mail marketing, she never left fitness far behind. Getting certified as an aerobics instructor was quickly followed by becoming a personal trainer. Soon she was working for Lifetime Fitness in the Twin Cities, where she still teaches everything from yoga to cardio and strength conditioning.

After developing a strong following from her classes, Freytag began selling her own workouts on VHS tapes (remember those?). Before long, she had partnered with Rodale Publishing, producing dozens of fitness DVDs and serving as a contributing editor at Prevention magazine. She gained further exposure with appearances on the Home Shopping Network and a Twin Cities morning news program.

Then came her website, which is when things exploded for Freytag. Despite her success, the former journalism major — who composed her first stories on a typewriter — hasn’t always found the digital world easy. “I’ve had to teach myself how to create a digital presence,” she says, “everything from selling online advertising to working with brands.” It also doesn’t hurt that her three full-time employees are millennials, “digitally savvy and with so many ideas for execution.”

A streaming subscription workout series called GetHealthyUTV is Freytag’s latest project. “So many people today don’t have time for the gym,” she says. Her fitness series is currently bringing what she calls the “power of the group” into 10,000 homes.

Many of GetHealthyU ’s clients are middle-aged, like its founder, and for them she has some advice:

  • Start at any time: you’re never too old.
  • Begin slowly so you don’t get injured. (Don’t start with CrossFit!)
  • Consistency is key. The quick fix no longer works in your 40s or 50s.
  • Aim for moving your body and eating right 80 percent of time. You don’t have to become obsessive.
  • Learn to love your body. And stop looking at magazines full of 20-year-olds.
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Bug Bites https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/on_campus/bug-bites/ https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/on_campus/bug-bites/#respond Mon, 05 Nov 2018 20:30:14 +0000 https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/?p=24297 Illustration of insect perched on edge of smoothie

Jane Webster/Début Art Ltd

More than two billion people around the world regularly consume insects — a good source of protein, vitamins, minerals, and healthy fats. UW–Madison researchers have documented, for the first time, the health effects of eating them. Their clinical trial, which had participants eat crickets ground up in breakfast shakes, shows that consuming the insects can help support the growth of beneficial gut bacteria. Researchers also found that eating the insects is not only safe but may also reduce inflammation in the body. “Food is very tied to culture, and 20 or 30 years ago, no one in the U.S. was eating sushi because we thought it was disgusting, but now you can get it at a gas station in Nebraska,” says Valerie Stull PhD’18, the study’s lead author and a postdoctoral researcher with the UW’s Global Health Institute.

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Raw Talent https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/features/raw-talent/ https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/features/raw-talent/#respond Mon, 05 Nov 2018 20:30:13 +0000 https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/?p=24335 After college, Marie Moody ’90 moved to New York City, studied acting, got fired from waitressing jobs, worked in fashion marketing, and adopted two dogs: first Stella, then Chewy.

Chewy’s health was failing, and Moody learned that changing his diet had the potential to help. She began preparing her pups meals of raw meats, fruits, and vegetables: a fresh, unprocessed menu intended to be closer to the animals’ ancestral fare. The raw-food diet helped Chewy fully recover — and fired up Moody’s entrepreneurial spirit. She filled her tiny Manhattan apartment with industrial freezers, made her own raw-food blends, and took taxis to personally deliver her small-batch product to customers.

Fifteen years later, Stella & Chewy’s is a multi- million-dollar, national pet-food brand, headquartered in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. Moody has stepped away from her role as chief executive; she now serves as founder and chairman of the board.

What keeps you most engaged with Stella & Chewy’s?

Getting people on board who are much smarter than me has been so much fun. To build a brand is like pushing a boulder uphill, so the more people doing it, the better it is.

How have the preferences of pet owners changed over time?

People are able to access so much information, and I think that helps [them] make more educated and intelligent decisions about what they want to feed both themselves and their pets. Pets are our family members, and the kind of unconditional love they give has become really important. With the evolution of the internet and social media, there’s something in between us and other people oftentimes. With your pets, you communicate in person.

You were one of the first entrepreneurs to bring raw pet food to market.

When I started, raw was a bad word. People were like, “Oh, you can’t call it raw. Can you call it gently uncooked?” When people hear raw meat, they still need to sometimes be talked through it, because they might think there could be a food-safety concern. But openness to raw feeding has come a long way.

Is it true that you collaborated with UW scientists on food safety?

I could not have done it without people at the UW. It’s funny, because I was an English major and a women’s studies major, and I came back and worked with an animal nutritionist and a meat scientist. I didn’t even know there was a building for meat science [on campus].

You know more about pathogens than the average person.

I know all about bacteria. More than I want to.

When you worked with UW scientists, was there a breakthrough moment?

They were able to point me to a technology called HPP [high pressure processing, a food-preservation method that retains nutrition and eliminates harmful bacteria]. There was one place to have it done [on a fee-for-service basis] in the United States 10 years ago, and it was in Milwaukee. It was pretty serendipitous.

How did your women’s studies major influence the Stella & Chewy’s brand?

I was coming out of the fashion industry, so I was looking at things like how to name it something besides “Natural Champion,” you know, like a really boring name. Because raw diets were already a brand-new way of thinking, I wanted something that was a little more approachable and friendly. Women’s studies really forced me to question the existing corporate hierarchy. For example, when I wanted to build a manufacturing plant, it never occurred to me that I couldn’t. And that’s thanks to the women who came before us. So I do feel a sense of responsibility to pass that on and to help women coming up now. That gives me great joy.

Has your advice changed for those who want to step forward in business as you did 15 years ago?

It’s fun to be at this point in my life and to have anything to offer the next generation in terms of advice. People complain about millennials, but I love millennials. I love the way they’re going about building businesses that are more concerned about the environment and sustainability and giving back.

How many pets do you have at home?

One cat, one dog, one kid. We were getting hate mail at Stella & Chewy’s that we weren’t focused enough on cats. My son and I were at a rescue event, and I told him he could pick one out. I just wanted to understand. You know how cats are.

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Hard Truth https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/features/hard-truth/ https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/features/hard-truth/#respond Fri, 02 Nov 2018 18:44:07 +0000 https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/?p=24324 Over the summer, Chris Borland ’13 attended the largest athletics fundraiser in Lawrence University’s history. He was an odd fit. There among players, coaches, and boosters was the “most dangerous man in football,” a nickname the former Badger star earned from ESPN after his unprecedented decision to leave the NFL over the long-term risk of brain trauma.

Borland made the trip to Appleton, Wisconsin, to support his new friend Ann McKee ’75, the night’s keynote speaker, whose brother was a star quarterback at Lawrence in the ’60s. To a stunned and largely unsuspecting audience, the foremost researcher on chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in football and other contact sports laid out her decade-long body of research on the degenerative brain disease that’s linked to minor, repetitive hits to the head.

Audible gasps interrupted the room’s silence when McKee projected side-by-side scans of healthy brains and brains riddled with damage. One had belonged to a 17-year-old high school football player who died by suicide and showed signs of CTE. “I’m not sure I’m giving the right speech for this crowd,” McKee confessed beforehand. By the time she was done, the night felt less like a celebration of sport and more like a cautioning of it.

As Borland was leaving, an attendee approached him. She wanted a picture to text to her partner — a huge football fan. “It’s ironic to me,” Borland says later. “Everyone tells me, ‘I loved watching you play at Wisconsin.’ And then they will say, ‘I really commend your decision [to leave football].’ ”

 

When you meet Borland, the unassuming history major sticks out more than the football player, with the wisdom and receding hairline of a man well beyond his years. His smile is welcoming; his tone is soft, reserved, and polite. He speaks with equal parts curiosity and conviction. Each word is carefully considered. He’s read hundreds of books since he left football. His word choice — from “disequilibrium” to “abyss” in a seamless sentence — bears it out.

Borland was born in Kettering, Ohio, a midsized suburb of Dayton. He was the sixth of seven active kids, with the oldest, a daughter, followed by six sons. They excelled in many sports growing up, except one: football. “I begged my dad to play every fall,” says Borland, who watched Wisconsin, Notre Dame, and the Green Bay Packers religiously.

Jeff Borland, who owns an investment advisory firm, played college football briefly at Miami University of Ohio. He was adamant that none of the boys would play organized football until high school. “I can’t say my concern was concussions — that would be too easy,” Jeff says. “It was more [broadly] head and neck injury based on the lack of form and technique.”

Borland fell in love with the game within five minutes of his first freshman practice. He took quickly to running back and receiver. On defense, his coaches designed a play for him — called “Badger” — to roam the field and target any player he saw fit. Once, he jumped and somersaulted over the offensive line, piledriving the running back into the ground in a single motion. It was violent — and it went viral.

 

The college recruiting process was brief. Borland’s dream school was always the UW. His grandfather, Henry Borland ’52, was an alumnus, and his father grew up in Madison. Most colleges projected him as a linebacker, even though he had never played the position formally.

Borland outperformed modest expectations and higher-rated recruits at his first two summer camps. His only preparation had been 20 minutes in a gym with his father, who relayed what he could remember from playing the position decades prior. By the end of a three-day camp at the UW — “When I showed up, they didn’t know who I was,” he says — head coach Bret Bielema saw enough potential to offer a scholarship. Borland jumped for joy — literally. He did a backflip in the Camp Randall parking lot and accepted the offer within an hour.

Borland went on to become one of the UW’s most dependable tacklers of all time. His aggressive, hard-nosed style on the field — combined with a school record for volunteer hours off of it — endeared him to fans. “You will be hard pressed to find a more genuine, empathetic human being,” said Kayla Gross ’15, community relations coordinator for UW athletics, in 2013.

Borland helped lead the UW to three conference championships, earning Big Ten Freshman of the Year in 2009 and Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year in 2013. His 420 career tackles rank sixth in school history.

During the 2014 NFL Draft, Borland’s reputation reigned. “He’s too short. He’s too slow. I don’t care — he can play,” proclaimed NFL Network draft expert Mike Mayock, describing Borland (endearingly, if later ironically) as a “thundering hardhead.” The San Francisco 49ers agreed, selecting him in the third round and signing him to a $2.9 million contract.

Coach Jim Harbaugh spoke glowingly of his middle linebacker throughout the year, telling reporters, “He’s so physical. You can see when he takes on the lead blocker that there is some rattling of fillings.” By season’s end, Borland led the 49ers’ top-five defense in tackles, was named to the All-Rookie Team, and was selected as an alternate for the Pro Bowl. He was just 24.

And then he walked away from it all.

 

Borland began looking into CTE during training camp of his rookie season. He had never given head injury serious thought until he ran head first into a nearly 300-pound fullback in practice. He almost certainly suffered a concussion, but he didn’t report it to the team, fearing that missing time could jeopardize his place on the roster.

Borland felt increasingly isolated in the 49ers’ locker room as he read A League of Denial. The book revealed the NFL’s resistance to acknowledging the link between football and CTE. When teammates and coaches were around, he hid it within another book’s cover.

Borland learned to compartmentalize. “I was living a very binary life, out of necessity,” he says. During practices, games, and training, his focus was remarkably singular. But in the back of his mind, he was thinking of his long-term brain health. And he was learning that with each collision he was compromising it.

Borland wrote a letter to his parents and handed it to them after a preseason game. It outlined his concerns and suggested that he might not be long for football. (Earlier in the summer, he had jotted down his career goals, including playing for at least 10 years.) They were surprised — and then relieved. Jeff Borland thought back to the UW days. His cousin, cheering emphatically, once remarked that the parents’ section at Camp Randall felt oddly quiet and dull. “What you’ve got to understand,” Jeff told her, “is we want them to do real, real well — and we want the team to win. But mostly we want them to be able to walk off the field at the end.”  

Borland started with simple Google searches, then research papers, then books. He learned of the tragedy of “Iron Mike” Webster x’74, a star center for the Badgers who retired in 1990 after a Hall of Fame career with the Pittsburgh Steelers and Kansas City Chiefs. Legendary for his durability and toughness on the field, Webster later experienced chronic pain, dementia, depression, and homelessness. He died in 2002, becoming the first former NFL player diagnosed with CTE.

Borland went straight to the source: researchers. That’s how he met McKee, who leads the world’s largest brain bank at Boston University. She’s analyzed several hundred brains of former football players — far more than anyone else. She told him the hard truth.

By the end of his rookie season, Borland had seen, read, and heard enough. He was leaving football to preserve his long-term health. He informed the 49ers in March 2015, to the shock of teammates and NFL fans alike.

“It’s essentially heresy to walk away from football in America,” Borland acknowledges. Extreme fans called him, in the nicest of terms, soft and weak. Wrote one on Twitter: “All due respect to Chris Borland, and head injuries are no joke, but what a p – – – – .”

But to others, like David Meggyesy, Borland’s decision was a courageous act. Meggyesy would know: 50 years ago, he also walked away from the NFL in his prime. An outspoken civil rights advocate and Vietnam War critic, he was benched for silently protesting during the national anthem. He retired and released Out of Their League, a scathing account of racism, sexism, and abuses of power he witnessed in the NFL. After hearing Meggyesy speak at the UW in 2013, Borland picked up a copy of his book and consulted with him during his rookie season.

“When Chris retired, he had a lot of influence because he had such integrity and perspective about what he was saying,” says Meggyesy, who later worked for the NFL Players Association. “It was believable for a lot of people. He really loved to play the game. He was a hell of a player.”

 

If Borland had any lingering doubt, it disappeared in July 2017. McKee and her team at Boston University’s CTE Center had finished analyzing the brains of 111 former NFL players, ranging from ages 23 to 89. All but one showed signs of CTE.

The condition’s degenerative (and currently untreatable) nature means that the damage doesn’t cease even when the collisions do. CTE isn’t diagnosable in the living, but the symptoms often arise later in life, sometimes decades after the exposure to contact. The most common symptoms are memory loss, dementia, and behavioral changes such as aggression — similar to the effects of Alzheimer’s disease, but with different lesions and indicators in the brain.

Ann McKee holding cross-section of human brain

TIME named Ann McKee as one of the 100 most influential people in the world in 2018. McKee’s work was central to Borland’s decision to retire, and “she may have saved my life,” he wrote in the magazine. Dina Rudick/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

The research points to a numbers game. The more blows to the head, the more likely the disease. Notably, these include minor — or subconcussive — impacts. Because players rarely feel or show pain at the time of small, indirect hits, the damage is easy to ignore. But they add up to much more than the occasional big hit. Twenty percent of those with CTE never suffer a diagnosable concussion, according to McKee.

Critics are eager to point out the limitations of McKee’s research. Her work relies on donated brains. Families are more likely to donate their loved one’s brain if they had noticed signs of cognitive decline, and McKee readily acknowledges this selective sample.

But she returns to the numbers game. Some 1,300 former NFL players died over the eight-year span of her study. She has proof that 110 had CTE. Even in the unlikeliest event that not a single one of the other 1,190 former players developed CTE, the prevalence of the disease would still be close to 10 percent of all players. “That’s a public health problem,” she says.

When discussing her research, McKee oscillates between a rigorous scientist consumed with the hard data and a concerned citizen visibly affected by the human toll of CTE. To avoid preconceived notions, she analyzes each brain without knowledge of whom it belonged to. Afterward, for statistical comparison, she sets out to learn as much as she can. For hours on end, she listens as family members’ memories and stories turn to grief and anger. When McKee presents her research, she feels compelled to show more than the subjects’ shocking brain scans — she shows their smiling faces, too. McKee, like Borland, no longer watches football. A lifelong Packers fan, her breaking point was Donnovan Hill in 2016. At age 13, he broke his neck and was paralyzed from a head-first collision while playing youth football. At age 18, he died from complications stemming from his injury. “That hit didn’t just cause paralysis,” McKee says. “He had tremendous brain damage.”

The current strategies to make football safer — better helmets, lower tackling, improved concussion protocols — might reduce some harm. But these ideas are rooted in a misguided focus, perpetuated at the very top of athletics, McKee says.

“The NFL has decided that this is a concussion issue, which it is not,” she continues. “It’s about the subconcussive, repetitive hits that happen with every collision.” Framing the issue around concussions, which can be managed and treated without fundamentally altering the sport, is a strategic choice.

According to McKee, the way to reduce the risk of CTE is to reduce collisions. In football, that’s no easy task. Collision is intrinsic; linemen surge together and crash helmets nearly every play. Fewer collisions translates to fewer practices, fewer plays, fewer games.

Ultimately, when Borland and McKee are asked how to make football safer, their answer is simple: football — at least the sport as we know it today — cannot be safe.  

Borland insists that he’s not anti-football. He’s pro-information. He wants players — many of whom remain “willfully ignorant,” he says — to learn the risks and to make informed decisions.

“I don’t [subscribe] to the notion that football is inherently evil or that there’s this impending doom and the game needs to go away,” Borland says. His primary concern is youth football, which often has the least regulated contact rules of all levels.

Earlier this year, he testified in support of the Dave Duerson Act, a proposal to ban tackle football for children under the age of 12 in Illinois. Those who started playing contact football before age 12 began to show signs of CTE an average of 13 years earlier compared to those who started playing later in life, according to McKee’s research.

Borland also volunteers for nonprofits dedicated to brain injuries in sports, including the Concussion Legacy Foundation and the After the Impact Fund. He travels and speaks frequently at conferences, and occasionally chats with players (including former UW receiver Jared Abbrederis ’13, who retired from the NFL in January) about his decision to leave football. Only a handful of NFL players have followed in Borland’s footsteps. That likely won’t change until CTE is more visible and can be traced in the living — which could be as soon as five years from now, McKee estimates.

The advocacy does not come naturally for Borland, who notes that the sport has afforded him lifelong memories and friendships. “I think the advocate struggles with [the question], ‘How much do I owe?’ ” Jeff Borland says. “As a parent, I would say I’m not sure he owes any more than he’s already done.”

While occasionally tempted, Chris Borland believes scaling back now would be a betrayal. “I’ve had wives of players tell me, ‘I wish he was dead, because he’s not the man I married, and I’ve just become a full-time caregiver for the last two decades.’ I can’t imagine saying no to someone who asks for something from that world,” he says.

 

In addition to the truth, Borland is searching for peace. The conversation surrounding safety in football provides anything but that. “The irony that I quit not to deal with this and [now], at least intellectually, deal with it every day isn’t lost on me,” says Borland. “And it’s tiring.”

Perhaps unintentionally, his favorite activities since leaving football share a common thread of escape: both physical, with traveling, surfing, hiking; and mental, with yoga and meditation.

Borland’s foray into mindfulness and meditative practice began when his brother-in-law gave him a copy of Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, which prompted him to meditate “pretty clumsily.” Soon after, a mutual friend connected him with Richard Davidson, founder of the UW’s Center for Healthy Minds and a leading researcher on how meditative practices can affect emotional health and the brain.

Borland was immediately struck by Davidson’s candor and scientific rigor (something he particularly appreciated after being approached for endorsements of “concussion-curing” pills and other pseudo-therapies). For years, Borland had learned to train his physical body to prepare for the next play, but never his mind to prepare for what’s next in life.

The difficulty of transitioning from the intensity of professional sports to the slog of everyday life is well documented. Similar to military veterans, retired athletes can struggle with the sudden loss of structure, camaraderie, serviceable skills, and even a sense of identity. Daily meditation has helped him to work through personal anxiety and depression, and more simply, to relax and clear his mind. He thought it could help others, too.

Last spring, Borland and Chad McGehee, an instructor for the Center for Healthy Minds, collaborated on a first-of-its-kind meditative program for former NFL players. Seventeen participants met in Madison over a span of two months. McGehee taught them a new meditative practice each week and assigned a training plan for home. Although some of the former players were initially skeptical — particularly when they were handed a recruiting brochure titled “Love and Compassion Cultivation,” Borland says, laughing — many of them later reported that the practices helped them to sleep better and to manage stress and physical pain.

“One guy talked about how he trained as a football player at 1,000 miles an hour, maximum effort, all the time,” McGehee says. “But that same tenacity at all times didn’t serve him well [after] football. The way he put it is that [mindfulness] felt like a way of deprogramming some of those [tendencies], to become aware that they were there.”

Encouraged by the success of the pilot, Borland continues to collaborate with the UW’s center and also works with the Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute, which teaches a mindfulness curriculum originally developed at Google. He’s facilitated meditative programs for teams at the UW, Michigan, and West Point, aiming to help active athletes cope with pressures on and off the playing field.

“The mindfulness [work] has been such a release valve for me,” says Borland, who now lives in Los Angeles. “It’s such a pivot to positivity and to optimism.”

When he meets former players, Borland pays special attention to how they introduce themselves. Some who have been retired from the NFL for as long as four decades will start with their name immediately followed by their past team or position.

“There’s a cliché that athletes live two lives: athlete and former athlete,” he says. “I don’t think it has to ring true. But it takes work to create a new identity.”

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The Big Dig https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/features/the-big-dig/ https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/features/the-big-dig/#respond Mon, 27 Aug 2018 17:33:27 +0000 https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/?p=23640 Pulling a soil sample from frozen Wisconsin ground in January is not impossible, but it certainly isn’t easy.

Armed with a steel pick, plant pathology professor Douglas Rouse sent dirt, grass, and ice flying into the sunlight at the UW Arboretum as a small group of introductory biology students noted the location and condition of the frozen soil. Thawed or frozen, wet or dry, the soil remains an essential hunting ground. Within it lies the key to suppressing what the United Nations calls “the greatest and most urgent global risk”: superbugs — strains of bacteria that have grown resistant to traditional antibiotics. Superbugs could kill more people than cancer by 2050 if left unchecked, according to a 2014 report issued by the United Kingdom’s government.

More than two-thirds of new antibiotics come from soil bacteria or fungi. But since a small sample contains thousands of species of bacteria — and most of the antibiotics they produce are toxic to humans — it requires significant time, labor, and persistence to isolate effective antibiotic producers and to test for new compounds. With the prospects of profitability lacking, pharmaceutical companies have shied away from developing new antibiotics to focus on more lucrative drugs.

Enter Tiny Earth, an initiative based at the UW’s Wisconsin Institute for Discovery (WID). Rouse’s biology students are just a sampling of the nearly 10,000 students across 41 states and 14 countries who are mining soil to solve the superbug problem.

“Antibiotic resistance is one of the main threats to global health and security, and the students have potential to discover new antibiotics to fill the void that currently exists,” says Jo Handelsman PhD’84, director of WID and founder of the initiative.

Each semester, thousands of students around the world dig into the soil in their backyards, farm fields, stream beds, and forest floors. Just like the UW students, they learn the techniques they need to identify new species and compounds. Along with building a database of new antibiotics with medical potential, Tiny Earth is addressing another looming global crisis: a shortage of students pursuing careers in science.

“One of the best ways to learn is to engage in science actively and to do research so that the thrill of discovery drives the learning process,” says Handelsman, who first developed the program in 2012 at Yale University. She saw too many first- and second-year undergraduates dropping out of the sciences and wanted to reverse the trend by offering hands-on research that pulls in techniques and ideas from disciplines such as ecology, genetics, and molecular biology. For students, it’s a galvanizing introduction to laboratory science: they learn new skills while solving real problems.

The UW introductory biology students spent last spring diluting their soil samples, culturing and isolating bacteria, and profiling the genomes of anti- biotic-producing microbes. Along the way, they made hypotheses about what they might find, learned and selected techniques, and synthesized their findings, all in the hope of discovering new antibiotic compounds. While the samples await final analysis, the initiative is betting on the odds that more participation will increase the chances of unique discovery.

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On the Mend https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/on_campus/on-the-mend/ https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/on_campus/on-the-mend/#respond Mon, 27 Aug 2018 17:33:10 +0000 https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/?p=23720 Ferguson the donkey is pictured wearing a prothetic leg

Bryce Richter

Ferguson the miniature donkey got a hand — actually a leg — from the School of Veterinary Medicine recently to replace a deformed hoof. The procedure was a first for the UW’s large animal hospital: amputation with a prosthesis is complex and rare for creatures such as horses or donkeys, who bear more weight in their front limbs. See more images.

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