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Could gene research unlock new epilepsy therapies?

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    If we want to solve complex medical and scientific problems, new approaches to research – and new partnerships – are required.

    This is true of epilepsy where, despite major improvements in disease management in recent decades, about one third of people with epilepsy still live with uncontrolled seizures. This is because none of the currently available treatments work for them.

    Clearly, fresh thinking is required if we want to improve quality of life for all people living with epilepsy.

    One area that holds great promise is genetics. Understanding the genetic causes of epilepsy can help scientists to find new targets for innovative therapies.

    However, the genetics of epilepsy is far from simple. It is not a question of finding a single 'epilepsy gene'. There are potentially hundreds of genes involved in epilepsy. Figuring out how these genes work together to cause the disease is an enormous challenge that requires collaboration between leading researchers in universities and industry.

    That is why UCB is working with academics from Imperial College London on what is known as a 'systems genetics' approach to studying epilepsy.

    Instead of studying individual genes, which has been the approach in epilepsy gene research until now, scientists developed a new technique that allows them to study multiple genes and explore how they work together.

    The project draws on preclinical studies using animal models which enhanced understanding of the link between genetics and the frequency and severity of seizures. Building on a large database of preclinical information, researchers at Imperial College London studied genetic samples from the brains of epilepsy patients.

    By combining this preclinical animal research with data from real people living with epilepsy, scientists have identified genes which are potential targets for future medicines. The first results of this major collaborative project have just been published in Nature Communication, a high-impact research journal.

    The paper reports that a single gene coordinates a network of around 400 genes involved in epilepsy. While this work continues, and it is still early days, the scientists at Imperial College London suggest that developing new medicines targeting this influential gene has the potential to offer new therapies for patients.

    This new way of studying multiple genes could mean an entirely new way of approaching epilepsy therapy. Existing epilepsy medications treat the symptoms of epilepsy; they suppress seizures. But this genetic research could open the door to treating the underlying disease. Watch this space.

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