Drug discovery and development can take decades and can cost millions of dollars. How much more beneficial would it be if new uses could be found for existing drugs? That would certainly eliminate a great deal of the cost involved, and a new drug discovery method used at the University of Calgary also cut down on the time required by a significant amount. The result? Finding out that an existing, widely used cancer drug also has powerful benefits for epileptic children.
The Challenge Epileptic Children Face
There are quite a few existing medications developed specifically for use with epilepsy. It is not a shortage of treatment methods that is the problem. The challenge that many children with epilepsy face is that they may see no benefit from using existing medications. Up to 1/3 of epileptic children find that conventional medications do not stop their seizures. Startlingly, this statistic has not changed in over 50 years, even with a host of new epilepsy drugs being developed. However, a new drug screening method promises to help find better solutions without the time and financial investment usually required to discover and develop new medications.
The Search for Better Solutions
The medical researchers who pioneered the new method realized they needed to take a different path. Most research into epilepsy medications focused on blocking channels to stop communication between cells. Obviously, this was of limited use. The researchers turned their sites to the ketogenic diet, which has been used to treat not only epilepsy, but also conditions as wide-ranging as cancer and dementia. The focus here was on how the diet changed the way in which cells produced energy that calmed epileptic brains.
This research led directly to the discovery of the new drug screening method. It relies on measuring the energy production in the background of an epileptic’s brain. The researchers tested existing drugs on zebrafish, a tropical fish species with similarities to humans and the ability to experience seizures like a human brain would. Perhaps the most important element of the procedure is that it relies on the use of existing drugs, rather than on developing new, experimental drugs. Because the drugs have already been approved and are on the market, certifying them for additional on-label use is a relatively short process.
By using their new drug screening methods, the researchers were able to learn that Zolinza™(vorinostat), a widely used cancer drug, has powerful benefits for epileptics. In fact, the drug was able to reduce the incidence of seizures in test animals by up to 60%. Of course, there’s a significant difference between lab animals and humans, but the researchers are pressing forward.
In spring of 2018, a clinical trial got underway at the Alberta Children’s Hospital. The trial’s goal was to explore the use of vorinostat on children with medication-resistant epilepsy, who are currently unable to find relief from their seizures through already existing epilepsy medications.
While it may be some time before the drug is legalized for use outside of clinical trials, it is a significant step in the right direction. The researchers that pioneered the new drug screening method are also continuing their research into other existing drugs and their potential use for treating epilepsy, not just in children, but in adults, too, and across the spectrum of epilepsy disorders. In addition, they are focusing on using existing medication to treat other medical and health conditions, including autism-spectrum disorders.
To learn more, you can read the study was published in the journal Brain, available through Oxford Academic.