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NFL Players Association Teams with Harvard

A $100 million grant tackles health risks

By DAVID CAMERON
January 29, 2013

Kameleon007/iStock

The National Football League Players Association (NFLPA) has granted Harvard Medical School a $100 million grant to create a transformative 10-year initiative—the Harvard Integrated Program to Protect and Improve the Health of NFLPA Members. The program will marshal the intellectual, scientific and medical expertise throughout Harvard University to discover new approaches to diagnosing, treating and preventing injuries and illnesses in both active and retired players.

“We are honored to work with the NFLPA to address the health challenges faced by NFL players and so many of America’s athletes,” said Jeffrey S. Flier, dean of the Faculty of Medicine at Harvard University. “We will harness the vast expertise of Harvard Medical School, its world-class affiliated hospitals and Harvard University’s 10 schools to ensure that we make a meaningful difference in the lives of these players through advances in medicine, science and technology. We are committed to going beyond our walls. We will reach out to other institutions when necessary, in order to access the resources needed to solve the most pressing medical issues identified by the NFLPA.”

“Our goal is to transform the health of these athletes,” said Lee Nadler, HMS dean for clinical and translational research, Virginia and D.K. Ludwig Professor of Medicine at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and director of Harvard Catalyst, who will direct the program. “In order to extend the life expectancy and quality of life of NFLPA members, we must understand the entire athlete, all the associated health risks, and all of their interactions. We refer to this comprehensive approach as the ‘Integrated NFL Player.’ Harvard Catalyst will convene and connect investigators from all disciplines, in all departments, across all of Harvard’s component schools and affiliated hospitals, to work as a single team.”

Professional football players often develop severe disability related to a number of health problems, including consequences of head trauma, heart problems, diabetes, joint and other skeletal injuries as well as psychological stress. Americans have become increasingly concerned about the risks posed by participation in contact sports. The program’s common goal is to improve the health and well-being of NFL players, while further elucidating the risks of participation in American football. The researchers will develop strategies for preventing injuries, illness and the undesirable consequences that sometimes result from participation in contact sports.

Developing these strategies requires an intimate understanding of the specific needs of professional athletes. The program leadership team represents all the critical domains of knowledge and skills necessary for success. Joining Nadler as co-director is Ross Zafonte, Earl P. and Ida S. Charlton Professor and chair of physical medicine and rehabilitation at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital, Massachusetts General Hospital and chief of physical medicine and rehabilitation at Brigham and Women’s Hospital; and as associate directors, William Meehan, director of the Micheli Center for Sports Injury Prevention, assistant professor of sports and emergency medicine and director of the Sports Concussion Clinic at Boston Children’s Hospital, and Alvaro Pascual-Leone, HMS associate dean for clinical and translational research, professor of neurology and director of the Berenson-Allen Center for Noninvasive Brain Stimulation at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.

“Our partnership with the NFLPA will contribute to transforming our understanding of the effects of physical demands, emotional stress and repetitive trauma on disease. We are excited about the contributions this extraordinary partnership will make to NFL players, the community and the knowledge base of medicine,” said Zafonte.

“The health issues that confront NFL players are alarming. When needed, we will reach out across the country and internationally to find the required expertise. For example, Herman Taylor, from the University of Mississippi Medical Center, who built and runs the unique Jackson Heart Study, makes us an even stronger team,” said Pascual-Leone.

In order to ensure a thorough assessment, experts in diverse areas including epidemiology, genetics, metabolomics, lipidomics, cell biology, neurobiology, regenerative medicine, neuroscience, imaging, and computational biology, to name only a few, will participate in this program. At the outset, researchers plan to immediately partner with NFL players themselves, identifying a group of at least 1,000 retired athletes from across the country. From this group researchers will identify 100 healthy and 100 unhealthy players, and through a series of tests and examinations create what the researchers describe as a “biological profile of illness.” Such a comprehensive study of football players has never been done before. An effort of this magnitude is critical to developing novel tests that can detect the earliest signs of problems in active players, and to investigating interventions to prevent them.

“We will immediately launch a number of innovative clinical trials to test new interventions for treating major health problems of NFL players,” said Meehan. These include a method for regrowing anterior cruciate ligament, or ACL, tissue; advanced imaging techniques to measure and assess heart function; and new approaches to directly treating concussion injuries.

These and other projects are designed to yield results within the first few years, and will be followed by similarly innovative studies, identified through competitive academic challenges issued to researchers throughout Harvard and beyond. Researchers will be challenged to discover new risk factors, identify novel preventative measures and develop innovative therapies. The key to the ongoing success of this initiative will be the partnerships among researchers, NFL players and players’ families. Through ongoing “listening tours” researchers will gain firsthand knowledge of players’ lives and experiences. Members of the Petrie-Flom Center at Harvard Law School will help address ethical, legal and policy issues relevant to the health of current, future and retired players.

“In the United States, millions of kids and college athletes play football, formally and informally,” said Dean Flier. “We cannot afford to ignore the health risks associated with this sport. This partnership between the NFLPA, Harvard’s schools and its prestigious hospitals represents an extraordinary opportunity to improve the health of NFL players and benefit generations to come.”

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