More than 3 million U.S. citizens are plagued by epilepsy, characterized by multiple seizures. With the help of a $1.75 million grant, University of Wyoming researchers are playing their part in understanding and eventually treating the disease.
UW professor Qian-Quan Sun recently won a $1.75 million grant from the National Institute of Health to continue his many years of work on epilepsy after a research breakthrough proved promising.
“We write a proposal, it goes through the review process, and the review gives it a score,” he said. “Our proposal was ranked in the top 4 percent, so we got a big, fat check on continuing our work with the five-year grant.”
Such large grants from the NIH are rare. Giving $1.75 million to Sun shows just how important his work is to the institute.
“We are not part of a medical school,” he said. “We are in the College of Arts and Sciences, so we are basically competing with medical schools whose mission is to study diseases. So we are at a disadvantage situation. It’s pretty difficult to gather this grant.”
Sun is part of the graduate neuroscience program, meant to provide students with a broad background for use in research positions. While several specialized areas are ingrained in the program, a “particular emphasis of the program is the utilization of novel mammalian and nonmammalian species for neurobiological studies,” the program’s website states.
Sun’s epileptic research fits neatly into this category, he said.
“We have a long history of using animal models to research the mechanisms of epilepsy, and the bottom line is, none of this research has been successful,” he said.
In the past 20 years, no animal models have successfully reproduced severe, spontaneous seizures common in epileptics. This is what sets Sun’s research apart — he is the first to successfully create an animal model in rodents that can be used to study certain forms of epilepsy.
“The most important contribution my lab has been working on, and which has been highly appreciated by the reviews, was because the animal model we created reproduces very reliably, a very severe, generalized epilepsy in the mouse model,” Sun said.
“Using devices to study the brain functions of the mouse over a long period of time … we found that we documented the first animal model of a human disease that’s identical to epilepsy that’s recorded in humans,” he added.
Epilepsy is a broad term. Essentially, anyone who’s had more than one seizure can be described as epileptic, making it difficult to research everything that could possibly cause seizures.
“We are studying a very unique type of epilepsy which is associated with problems of embryonic development and child development,” he said. “It’s developmental epilepsy — the disease is called focal cortical dysplasia.”
This disease is normally found in children, Sun said, and can cause major problems throughout their life.
“What’s unique about this syndrome is, it’s very devastating because the seizure that’s associated with focal cortical dysplasia — there is no treatment,” he said. “The impact of this seizure is affecting a lot of cognitive disabilities like language issues, always associated with developmental delay, sometimes with cerebral palsy. The consequences are broad.”
Children with focal cortical dysplasia normally have seizures during sleep, Sun said. So, in addition to the problems associated to the seizures themselves, a child can also contract any negative side effects of disturbed and short sleep cycles.
Brain surgery is the current treatment, said researcher Dan Petrus.
“It causes a malformation in the brain which can lead to brain seizure activity, which can be pretty devastating,” he said. “It can be pretty difficult to treat without actually cutting out a piece of the brain.”
Sun’s animal model is the next step to figuring out a possible cure.
“What’s unique about the animal model is, you know exactly where the injury is, and you can do close monitoring across their entire lifespan, and you can do pharmacological and physiological manipulation to try to stop the seizure,” he said. “Whereas in humans, you have very limited ability. You can’t just apply some new approach to kids.”
The lab’s work is diverse, from analyzing electrical impulses in the brain to looking at slices of a brain through a microscope, Petrus said.
“One of the things about neuroscience is it’s a very multifaceted area of research,” he said. “We’re approaching this field of epilepsy from multiple directions, from the very basic cellular level to the brain circuitry and even out to outward behavior so we can get the whole picture with what’s going on so we can eventually treat it and understand how it occurs.”
Once the researchers figure out exactly how the seizures start, possible tests on treatment can occur, Sun said.
“When we have an animal model, it’s just the beginning,” he said. “We just have a model to replicate the process that happens in humans. The treatment part would be the last step. If you want to treat a disease, you have to know how it happens.”
The lab will soon share their findings to the rest of the scientific community, Sun said.
“The whole idea is to, eventually, benefit human wellbeing,” he said. “As soon as we have made progress, which we have, we are reporting and summarizing our research in a paper for others to use.”