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New Epilepsy Society Research Centre brings hope


27 February 2013

Professor Sanjay Sisodiya, lead geneticist at Epilepsy SocietyThe official opening of Epilepsy Society’s new research centre coincides with the 60th anniversary of the discovery of the structure of DNA. Lead geneticist Professor Sanjay Sisodiya explains the significance for people with epilepsy.

It is 60 years, almost to the day, since Francis Crick and James Watson revealed their groundbreaking discovery – the double helix which explains how the twisted strands of DNA replicate and how hereditary information is coded.

In late February 1953, the two Cambridge scientists, along with peers Rosalind Franklin and Maurice Wilkins, set the stage for the rapid advancement of molecular biology that continues to this day, allowing us a window on the structure contained within every living cell.

So it seems poignant and appropriate that the official opening of our new Epilepsy Society Research Centre on Friday (1 March 2013) should coincide with the anniversary of this momentous milestone.

The discovery of the double helix was followed ten years ago by the sequencing of the human genome and in the last decade genetics has played an increasing role in healthcare.

Genetic tests are available on the NHS for more than 1,000 diseases caused by single gene mutation and scientific advances mean we can begin to understand the impact of mutations across multiple genes.

Research into epilepsy

We are on the cusp of a revolution in the field of genetic research and genomic medicine – the diagnosis and treatment of people based on their DNA sequence or genome.  And our new research centre will lead the way in the field of epilepsy.

This year we will install a DNA sequencer at our research centre with the potential to revolutionise the way we diagnose and treat epilepsy. It will be our gateway to earlier diagnosis and more targeted treatments.

Having a DNA sequencer in our laboratory will enable researchers to map the genomic sequence of a patient rapidly, at low cost and on site.

These findings will then be interpreted alongside our portfolio of existing tests – MRI, electroencephalography (EEG), optical coherence tomography (OCT), facial imaging – and in conjunction with the patient’s history, which remains pivotal to diagnosis.

Response to anti-epileptic drugs

In this way we can start to build up a comprehensive picture that will help us to look for the cause of someone’s epilepsy and to identify mutations which may determine their response to certain anti-epileptic drugs.

Finding the cause of a person’s epilepsy is absolutely fundamental. Only then can we begin to address the problem. For example a drug company may be able to develop a new drug specific to the syndrome.

Similarly, by comparing the DNA of patients who have an adverse or good response to a particular drug, we can try to find a common genetic link between them. Ultimately this can help us to prescribe the appropriate medication from the point of diagnosis.

Better healthcare for patients

At the moment, across general medical science, the average length of time it takes to convert laboratory and academic research into clinical practice is typically 15 years.

The pace of discovery has now rocketed. There has been an enormous effort and billions invested on a worldwide scale to sequence the human genome. Finally we are beginning to see this work translating into better healthcare for patients.

There is still much to do, and having our own sequencer will help. I am hopeful that within five years we will begin to be able to deliver individualised treatment based on a person’s genome. I believe that within 10 years, patients coming for assessment at Chalfont Centre will automatically have their DNA sequenced alongside other routine tests. And that should lead to important progress in tackling epilepsy.