Scientists working at University College London have cured epilepsy in rats by adding a special ‘calm down’ gene. The gene stops groups of neurons (brain cells) becoming too excited – and prevents seizures.
According to a report on BBC News, the researchers have developed two ways of manipulating the behavior of individual cells inside the brain in order to prevent seizures.
Both methods use viruses injected into the brain to add tiny sections of DNA to the genetic code of a few thousand neurons. If the neurons become too excited they can throw the whole system into chaos and cause a seizure. The additional ‘calm down’ gene stops the neurons from becoming too excited.
One of the researchers, Dr Robert Wyke, said: “It’s the first time a gene therapy has been used to completely stop these seizures. We are very hopeful for this. Drugs haven’t done anything for epilepsy in the last 20 to 30 years, just less side-effects. There is a real need for a new therapy. We’re very excited about this.”
The second method connected a gene from algae that can be controlled by light. After the treatment the function of the neurons did not change until a light was shined on them with an implanted laser. The light stopped the neurons from firing, preventing a seizure. The researchers think this method could work in a similar way to an implanted pacemaker, which is used to control an irregular heartbeat.
These therapies are a long way off being able to be used on people. However, Philip Lee, chief executive of Epilepsy Action, said: ‘Gene therapy research is an important development in our understanding of epilepsy. It is very encouraging that progress is being made in this arena to help people with epilepsy’.
The research was published in the journal Science Translational Medicine.