Epilepsy is the most common serious neurological condition in humans and current treatments for pregnant women carry a higher chance of major birth defects, including heart problems and neural tube defects such as spina bifida. The current drugs available also have the problem of not controlling the condition in 20-30% of sufferers.
Matthew Walker at UCLH/UCL and Robin Williams at Royal Holloway have identified the chemicals in cells on which sodium valproate – one of the most effective drugs for epilepsy – work. This has enabled them to identify groups of drugs that are more powerful than valproate, yet probably lack the serious effects that it can have in pregnancy.
Professor Walker said: “This is an important breakthrough in identifying new drugs that may prove to be more effective in epilepsy yet lack many of the unacceptable adverse effects of older therapies.”
The research, published in the journal Disease, Models & Mechanisms last week, will be of interest to the half a million people affected by epilepsy in the UK alone, a third of which are not adequately controlled by current antiepileptic medication.
Sodium valproate has been one of the most successful drugs but it carries a considerable risk to pregnant women, increasing the chances of major birth defects, spina bifida, heart problems and learning difficulties.
Until now, the way sodium valproate works in epilepsy had been unknown, but this research has identified a novel biochemical pathway by which it works. This has enabled the identification of a host of other more potent compounds.
The National Centre for Replacement, Refinement and Reduction (NC3Rs) has supported this research into using cells from soil-dwelling amoeba called Dictyostelium and the translation of this into mammalian systems.
The Wellcome Trust also provided funding for the project but financial support is currently being sought to develop these compounds towards clinical trials.