Lexington auto mechanic becomes neurosurgeon; now researching traumatic brain injury diagnosis and treatment

In the early 1980s, Geoff Manley was a mechanic, and some of his clients were University of Kentucky faculty. That is how he met microbiology professor Shelly Steiner and started on the road to a new career: neurosurgery and a multi-million-dollar research project.

“Some kids are polite—you know, ‘Yes, yes, sir’—but disengaged. Geoff was clearly intelligent and focused,” Steiner told Laura Dawahare of UKNow. “You can talk to someone for just a few minutes and know right away how bright they are. Geoff was like that.”

Because no one in Manley’s family had gone to college, Steiner’s suggestion that he finish his GED and attend UK, was a “transformative moment,” Manley said. He graduated in 1988 then earned his MD-PhD at Cornell University. Now he is the vice chair of neurosurery at the University of California-San Francisco.

“Manley’s earlier work with Steiner and a colleague in the lab influenced his decision to pursue a career in the neurosciences; his particular interest is in traumatic brain injury, or TBI,” Dawahare writes.

Though the public often hears about athletes’ concussions, TBI results even more often from auto accidents or slips-and-falls. Every year at least 1.7 million people in the U.S. get medical attention for TBI. “I did a lot of bench work earlier in my career, but I was torn between my interest in the basic sciences and my desire to do something directly relevant for TBI patients,” Manley said. “So I began to explore a new translational research approach to TBI.”

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) gave him $18.8 million over five years to do worldwide research about concussion and traumatic brain injury. TBI is complex, which makes diagnosis and therapy development difficult. Dr. Manley and his colleagues want to change the current TBI measures. “Here we are in the 21st Century, and we classify TBI in one of three ways: mild, moderate or severe,” Manley said. “Cancer, by comparison, can be characterized in a very precise way, and treatments are customized to each patient’s needs.” Therefore, Dr. Manley wants to establish a set of classifications for TBI that are as detailed as the ones used for cancer.

“We expect that our approach will permit researchers to characterize and stratify patients more effectively, will allow meaningful comparisons of treatments and outcomes and will improve the next generation of clinical trials,” Manley said. “Advancing our understand of TBI will ultimately lead to successful, patient-specific treatments.”

Manley said that Steiner’s encouragement helped him not only finish his GED and college but also get where he is today. Steiner said, “Geoff would have made it anyway—he had the intellectual octane and the motivation. He may think others helped him, but it really was his trip.” (Read more)

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