Overcoming the 'trial and error' in epilepsy treatment

30 July 2021


Improving a “trial-and-error approach’’ to epilepsy treatment is the aim of Australian Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology research that encompasses stem cells, artificial intelligence, brain organoids and drug screening.

Professor Ernst Wolvetang from the Univeristy of Queensland will take a leading role, using $1 million from the Australian Government’s Medical Research Future Fund.

His research team aims to improve epilepsy treatment that currently involves a trial of different anti-seizure medication, doses and combinations to find an effective solution for each patient.

The cost of ineffective epilepsy treatment

Epilepsy is a debilitating group of neurological disorders affecting 1 in 26 people.

Despite advances in the past 20 years, more than 30 per cent of people with epilepsy do not have control of their seizures.

Professor Wolvetang said some people with difficult-to-treat epilepsy, including those with drug-resistant variants, had years of ineffective treatment.

“For the patient, this protracted journey results in related illnesses and serious side effects, loss of productivity and greater risk of sudden unexplained death,’’ he said.

“For the health system this journey incurs significant cost.

“It is clear that there is an urgent need to alter this trajectory and make the journey from diagnosis to effective treatment shorter and cheaper.”

Stem cells, organoids to give new insights

The research aims to alter the trajectory through collaboration with leading neurologists – UQ Centre for Clinical Research Associate Professor Lata Vadlamudi and Monash University’s Professor Patrick Kwan and Professor Terence O’Brien.

“At present, we don't know which particular anti-seizure drugs would be most effective for individual patients at a personal level,” Professor Kwan said.

“Our research has the potential to fundamentally transform epilepsy care.”

The AIBN research will use stem cells from people with drug-resistant epilepsy to grow brain organoids, miniature models that mimic human brains.

Brain organoids, miniature models that mimic human brains, will be used to screen epilepsy medication.

The organoids will be used to screen a library of approved medications to identify those able to reduce seizure-like activity for each person.

An artificial intelligence model will be developed, using laboratory, clinical and genetic data to assist in predicting the most promising anti-seizure medications.

Professor Wolvetang said the research would demonstrate that an approach combining patient specific stem cells with drug screening and decision-making software is fast, precise and effective.

“The research will not only provide neurologists with evidence-based treatment options and thus reduce health care costs, but will also provide insights into the genetic drivers of epilepsy and the reasons why some patients become drug-resistant,” he said.

The research aligned with the MRFF scheme in enabling innovative research that cut across multiple scientific and clinical disciplines to address urgent unmet healthcare needs, he said.

Media: Erik de Wit, e.dewit@uq.edu.au, +61 447 305 979