Faster, higher, stronger, safer

16 July 2012

When the curtain rises on the 2012 Summer Olympic Games in London later this month, MSFHR trainee Dr. Babak Shadgan will be among the medical officials supporting the health and safety of the world’s top athletes.

Working as a medical officer and doping control liaison with FILA, the international wrestling federation, Shadgan will monitor all wrestling competitions in London and collect data categorizing injuries according to their mechanism and severity. These data will form the basis for a surveillance study in which Shadgan will assess the rate of injury and develop evidence-informed policy recommendations to better protect athletes.

London 2012 will mark Shadgan’s fourth Olympics as a medical officer and his third analysis of Olympic wrestling injuries. His first report, an observational study based on the 2004 Athens games, found a high rate of injury and advocated changes to the competition format to reduce the risk to wrestlers. These changes included stiffer penalties for dangerous actions, better training of coaches and referees to recognize injuries, and shorter matches that place less strain on athletes and incorporate recovery time. The changes were implemented at the Beijing games in 2008 and made an immediate impact.

“We came out with fewer injuries and less severe injuries during the Beijing Olympic Games, and I think all those actions and preventative measures were very important in reducing the risk of injuries,” says Shadgan.

Following Beijing, Shadgan again analyzed competition injury data and published the first scientific study of Olympic wrestling injuries in the high-impact American Journal of Sports Medicine. His follow-up study in London will build on this work with the hope of using evidence to reduce injuries in wrestling and other sports over time.

Olympic inspiration

Shadgan’s Olympic experiences have played a critical role in shaping his research career. During the 2004 Olympic Games, he worked with a former gold medalist who was forced to withdraw from competition with a chronic leg injury. The only diagnostic procedure for this condition was difficult and highly invasive, prompting Shadgan to explore alternative approaches.

Inspired by this challenge, Shadgan proposed a non-invasive diagnostic method based on near-infrared spectroscopy (NIRS). This optical technology uses pulses of light to measure changes in the oxygenation and hemodynamics of tissue, allowing accurate diagnosis of a range of conditions. His proposal was supported by MSFHR through a 2007 Trainee award and formed the basis of his PhD thesis, the results of which were recently published.

Shadgan is now working to apply the NIRS methodology for non-invasive diagnosis of bladder dysfunction as a post-doctoral fellow at ICORD. Supported by a 2011 MSFHR Trainee award, he has developed a technique using a small wireless device – about the size of a mobile phone – that emits a wavelength that penetrates the bladder and returns information about its pathology. This inexpensive and simple tool has the potential to improve diagnosis of bladder conditions, which are a major complication worldwide, particularly in people with spinal cord injuries.

For his innovative use of NIRS, Shadgan was recently recognized with the D.J. Lovell Scholarship, the most prestigious academic award presented by the International Society of Optics and Photonics.

Shadgan credits his MSFHR awards as a key factor in his ability to innovate.

“I think, to be honest, all my achievements are because of the very early support of the Michael Smith Foundation,” he says. “I started with an idea during the Olympic Games, and the Michael Smith Foundation came on board and supported my proposal, making it possible for me to realize this vision.”