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U. researchers awarded funds to continue testing epilepsy drugs

FILE: Doug Rice spends time with his daughter, Ashley, at their home in West Jordan on Wednesday, Nov. 16, 2016. Ashley suffers from epilepsy.
FILE: Doug Rice spends time with his daughter, Ashley, at their home in West Jordan on Wednesday, Nov. 16, 2016. Ashley suffers from epilepsy.
Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Epilepsy plagues an estimated 50 million people worldwide, though drugs used to treat accompanying seizures are not effective for all patients.

The University of Utah's College of Pharmacy has been awarded a five-year, $19.5-million contract renewal with the National Institutes of Health to continue testing drugs to treat epilepsy, including new compounds to prevent development of the neurological disorder, but specifically in drug-resistant cases.

"We're looking for drugs that can modify or prevent the disease, particularly in those patients either with refractory epilepsy or at risk for developing epilepsy following a brain injury," said Karen S. Wilcox, professor and chairwoman of pharmacology and toxicology. Wilcox is also director of the U.'s Anticonvulsant Drug Development program.

The program has evaluated more than 32,000 drug compounds since it began in 1975 and has "played a key role in identifying and characterizing many of the drugs now available to treat patients with epilepsy and to control their seizures," Wilcox said.

The U. program employes 18 researchers, technicians and other staff, who work to find drugs for testing, as well as perform basic research that expands knowledge on the topic of brain disorders.

The funding comes from the National Institutes of Health's National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. It is significant because it marks a shift in the mission of the program at the U., to identify new therapies, "to address the unmet medical needs of people living with epilepsy," according to Dr. John Kehne, program director at the institute.

In recent years, Utah lawmakers have created a registry for patients with epilepsy to gain access to cannabidiol, or hemp oil extracts from marijuana plants, to help with seizure control. Research on its effects is also conducted at the U. but is separate from pharmacologically approved medications.

There is no cure for epilepsy, though Wilcox believes progress is and can be made. Anti-seizure medications are used to control repeated and sometimes debilitating seizures in certain types of the disorder.

"The brain has remarkable plasticity throughout a person's life," she said. "If we learn enough about neuroscience and the details of how the brain works, it's very possible to find a cure."