ICK, Juvenile Myoclonic Epilepsy, and the burden of proof

Pathogenic or benign. In 2018, ICK, coding for Intestinal-Cell Kinase, was reported as a novel causative gene in Juvenile Myoclonic Epilepsy (JME) in the New England Journal of Medicine. JME is one of the most common epilepsy syndromes, and the authors suggested that up to 7% of JME in their study may be explained by pathogenic variants in this gene, suggesting that, if applicable to all individuals with JME, it may provide a genetic diagnosis for an expected 500,000 individuals worldwide. In a reply to the initial study, the investigators of the EuroEPINOMICS-CoGIE, EpiPGX, Epi4K, and EPGP Consortia attempted to replicate these initial findings, but could not find any evidence in for a role of ICK in JME and indicated that the initial results may have arisen by chance and due to methodological issues. Given the potential implications for future research and therapy development in a relatively common epilepsy, the controversial ICK story is a good example to highlight why it is important to revisit the current consensus on when we consider a candidate a true disease gene and why a category mistake confusing variant pathogenicity for gene validity may result in false positive findings. Continue reading

The Epilepsy Genetics Initiative – novel diagnoses through exome re-analysis

The negative exome. Despite writing a lot about the power of next generation sequencing technologies to provide a genetic diagnosis in individuals with severe epilepsies, it is important to remember that most exome tests performed in a diagnostic setting are negative. Even the most optimistic studies do not find a diagnostic yield that exceeds 40%. However, what can be done about the 60-70% of patients who had undergone exome sequencing, the current gold-standard diagnostic testing, but have received a negative test result? A systematic re-analysis after 12-24 months is currently considered one possibility to make sense of existing exome data. In a current publication, the Epilepsy Genetics Initiative (EGI) reports their results of a systematic research-based re-analysis in 166 individuals with epilepsy. In eight individuals, a novel diagnosis could be achieved, including novel genes not known at the time of the initial report and novel mechanisms such as alternative exons. With a diagnostic rate of 6%, this study provides a unique benchmark of what can be expected when exomes initially come back as negative. Continue reading

V is for valine – VARS mutations in epileptic encephalopathy

Transfer RNAs. A critical step in translating a cDNA into proteins involves transfer RNAs (tRNAs) that deliver a specific amino acid to the ribosome based on a specific codon in the messenger RNA. Thereby, tRNAs establish the physical link between the mRNA and the amino acid sequence of the growing protein, an essential cellular function. In order for tRNAs to be loaded with the appropriate amino acids, the organism has developed enzymes specific for the individual amino acids that are referred to as tRNA ligases or, more precisely, aminoacyl tRNA synthetases (aaRS). Despite the ubiquitous role of aaRS in the cell, pathogenic variants in genes coding for specific aaRS result primarily in neurological phenotypes, ranging from peripheral neuropathy to early-onset epileptic encephalopathies. In two recent back-to-back publications, bi-allelic pathogenic variants in VARS are described as a novel cause for epileptic encephalopathy, adding VARS to the list of aaRS genes linked to human disease and solving an almost decade-old mystery. Continue reading

Heat at the synapse revisited: an STX1B update

Heat at the synapse revisited. STX1B encodes syntaxin 1B, one of three proteins – along with SNAP25 and synaptobrevin – that form the SNARE complex. The SNARE complex is part of the protein machinery responsible for Ca2+-dependent fusion of the presynaptic neuronal cell membrane with the synaptic vesicle to enable neurotransmitter exocytosis. STXBP1 also plays an important role in this process, as the syntaxin binding protein encoded by STXBP1 interacts with the SNARE complex via binding to syntaxin. While pathogenic variants in STXBP1 are a well-established cause of early-onset epilepsies and related neurodevelopmental disorders, after the initial description of STX1B-related epilepsies in 2014, very little more was heard regarding STX1B in the intervening four years. Now, we contributed patients to a publication in Neurology, which provides an update regarding the clinical and genetic landscape of STX1B-related epilepsies. Continue reading

Cost-effectiveness of genetic testing in patients with epilepsy: which test is the right test?

Which test is the right test? In clinical practice, determining an appropriate genetic testing strategy in the evaluation of a patient with unexplained epilepsy is often inconsistent and left to the treating provider, given the lack of evidence-based guidelines. Oftentimes external factors, such as insurance hurdles, dictate the genetic testing that can be ordered. A recent meta-analysis in Neurology attempts to answer the question about which genetic test is most cost-effective in patients with epilepsy, which may aid in the decision making when considering a genetic evaluation of a person with epilepsy. Continue reading

Constrained coding regions and genetic causes for epilepsy that we might have missed

Genetic architecture. Our reference dataset for genetic variation in humans has become so large that we can increasingly ask the question whether the distribution of genetic variants tells us something about genes and regions within genes without knowing anything about what these genes actually do. For example, it is well established that genes with fewer protein-truncating variants than expected are much more likely to be causative genes for epilepsy and neurodevelopmental disorders than genes that have an average number of these variants. A recent publication in Nature Genetics takes this approach one step further by looking at specific regions within genes rather than entire genes, a somewhat interesting approach that the authors introduce by discussing bullet damage to airplanes in World War II. Continue reading

The second ILAE GWAS or why 30% of genetic generalized epilepsy is explained

Genome-wide association. While most of the neurogenetics community was focused on exome sequencing and the discovery of novel monogenic forms of epilepsy in the last few years, something quite remarkable had happened in the background. Common variants and genome-wide association studies have made a remarkable comeback. The ILAE Consortium for Complex Epilepsy had slowly worked on increasing sample sizes over time, and the second analysis of common variants in common epilepsies was published in late 2018. Sample sizes have almost doubled since the first study in 2014, and as a result, the number of genome-wide significant loci has tripled. However, the most intriguing finding was something that completely caught me by surprise – more than 30% of the heritability of the genetic generalized epilepsies is explained through common variants, approaching the numbers we see in epileptic encephalopathies explained by monogenic causes. This is one more reason to discuss the recent ILAE GWAS in more detail. Continue reading