Ground Breaking CTE Research May Save the Game of Football

January 9, 2020
Lisa Kelly-One Foot Down

Change is something we all experience in our lives. As we grow, our knowledge changes, our circle of influence changes, technology changes; pretty much everything changes. And as you look at the game of football, it too has changed a lot over the years. If you compare the college football of Rockne, to the college football of Parseghian, to the college football of Holtz, to the college football of Kelly; you are going to see many changes and advances within the sport. In my eyes, the biggest hot button topic that is changing the current game of football (at all levels) is the concussion crisis, or Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE).

As not only the players, but all of us have become more aware and more educated of the risks associated with playing football, coaches and Universities have had to step up and create changes in order to make the game we love safer for those who play it. The topic has been of great interest to me, and a little under two years ago I came across a company (Mercaptor Discoveries) that is making ground breaking research in the treatment and prevention of CTE. I had the opportunity to speak with their CEO, Sara Isbell, in 2018 to learn little more about what they are developing. And I spoke with her again this past week. Here’s a recap of my original interview with Sara, and an update on what Mercaptor is currently working on.

What is your academic/career background before joining Mercaptor Discoveries?

I have a B.S. in Neurochemistry, Biochemistry, Molecular Biology from University of Irvine, Calif. I worked at Genentech early in my career and was a Senior Researcher at Raptor Pharmaceuticals for 12 years. In 2017, I co-founded Mercaptor Discoveries.

Do you have any previous association with the game of football?

I do not have much previous association with football, aside from watching games with my dad when I was growing up. But I am so happy that the drug I am developing could potentially impact the lives of so many athletes, from kids to pro NFL players. The concussion crisis is finally being acknowledged, so I am happy that we may be able to help people avoid serious lifelong complications from doing something they love – like playing football.

How did you become interested in researching CTE and football related brain injuries?

I am a neuroscientist but I was in the process of researching something else when my team and I stumbled upon this discovery. Then we realized the implications this breakthrough molecule could have for so many neurodegenerative conditions.

Can you explain the current concussion medication that your company is working on?

Our molecules, called captons, prevent trauma from spreading throughout the brain. By halting the progression of the initial damage caused by concussions, the medication would prevent long-term repercussions like ALS and other progressively degenerative diseases from developing. Captons could prevent or treat chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), alcohol withdrawal, chemobrain, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and epilepsy.

In Mercaptor’s most recent research, they have been applying their technology to the prevention and treatment of seizures, and they have efficacy data which proves their captons can be used to help seizure patients. Their model has been checking to see if the captons can quiet the brain after a traumatic event, such as a seizure, TBI or concussion. Once this model can be moved into clinical trials and proven, the technology can then be applied to even more traumatic brain events.

Today, the treatment for seizure patients involves the patient taking a drug or drugs which quiet the brain from firing. These drugs cannot be targeted to a specific part of the brain, but are absorbed by the entire brain; to the healthy and not healthy parts of the brain. These medications make the patient drowsy, and being that they have to take the medications every day, this oftentimes mean they cannot work or drive as a result of these side effects.

When these drugs are ‘captonized,” using a chemical “trick” to turn them into a Capton, they become inactive versions of themselves. (Many drugs have the right chemical properties to be “captonized.”) As a Capton, the drug also gains higher brain penetration. The drug will remain inactive, evenly distributed throughout the brain, until a traumatic brain event occurs, such as a seizure or concussion. When the traumatic brain event occurs, the drug is then activated in the exact place where it is needed, and not everywhere in the brain. This would allow people to take anti-seizure medication and not be drowsy, and the medication would only kick in when a seizure started.

Their research is also showing that this technology could be slightly modified and then applied to strokes, alcohol withdrawal, Alzheimers … the applications are endless. Never before in history have we been able to use a molecule to administer medication quietly, and only work when needed. The scientists at Mercaptor are confident that once they can prove the success of this technology with seizure patients, that they will be able to apply this technology to more than just traumatic brain events, but to conditions they haven’t even thought of yet.

How did former NFL player Jim Kovach become a part of Mercaptor Discoveries and what is his involvement?

Jim joined our Board of Directors after looking at our science. As a medical doctor and former football player, he is in a unique position to work toward finding solutions to the concussion crisis that is plaguing the NFL.

In a quote from Jim Kovach, Jim explains the grave reality that it is practically impossible to make the game of football truly “safe” for its players. This is why the research being done by Mercaptor is so important in saving the game of football. “With just the amount of physics that I learned to get into medical school and the knowledge of the forces within the brain,” says Jim Kovach, a medical doctor, lawyer, entrepreneur, and former player, “my personal opinion is that it would be impossible to truly mitigate the coup-contrecoup—the shaking of the brain, the physical contusion of the brain and the cerebrospinal fluid that is caused by head impacts.”

Where do you hope this research/medication will be in 10 years? 20 years? And could this save the game of football?

We believe this medication will be used widely to prevent brain injury in contact sports. Yes, captons could save the game of football! Athletes could play football without the fear of long-term repercussions – this would literally be a game-changer for football and so many other sports.

This discovery is not far from being in humans. If we can get the funding, we can be in the clinic in two years and to the market in an additional three years. Our approach works on the biochemical level, which is translatable between animals and humans. Unlike other drugs that have been developed and have fallen short after animal studies, our medication being in pre-clinical phase for the next three years will guarantee success in humans.

Since this is an entirely new approach to fighting brain injury and disease, attracting funding is a challenge. It takes a special kind of investor who is willing to take a big leap. We are hoping that our work will attract funding from people who are passionate about changing the world for the better. To learn all about Mercaptor’s vision, visit

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