My wrong guesses of 2012. Two weeks ago during a presentation, I had to admit that there is little evidence for a large contribution of recessive or compound heterozygous mutations in epileptic encephalopathies. At the beginning of 2012, I had initially suggested that recessive or compound heterozygous mutation of known neurometabolic disorders could be identified through exome sequencing in sporadic epileptic encephalopathies. However, as of 2013, there is little evidence for this in our data or the data from other consortia. Now, two papers in Cell suggest a significant contribution of recessive mutations in autism including a revival of the “hidden neurometabolic hypothesis”. Continue reading
A peculiar gene. There is one gene in the small world of epilepsy genetics that has always troubled me. A gene that has an unknown function and is not expressed in the postnatal brain, but is well established as one of the few genes for autosomal dominant Juvenile Myoclonic Epilepsy (JME). This gene is EFHC1. Now, a recent paper in Epilepsia reports EFHC1 as a possible candidate gene in autosomal recessive epileptic encephalopathy with neonatal onset. The mystery surrounding this gene continues. Continue reading
Is the speed of dark the same as the speed of light? This is one the questions that Lou Arrendale is concerned with, the protagonist of Elisabeth Moon’s Nebula Award winning science fiction novel. Lou has autism, but he grows up a future where prenatal diagnosis and early intervention helps people with autism lead an independent life. Lou works for an IT company with a special autism unit that takes advantage of his superior pattern recognition skills. The novel is about Lou’s internal struggle and external pressure through his employer and friends to enroll in a novel experimental therapy that might “cure” autism. In a recent paper in Science, Novarino and colleagues now claim to have identified a potentially treatable form of genetic autism. Continue reading
A 21st century gold rush. Collections of biosamples, referred to as biobanks, are sometimes referred to as the ‘gold of the 21st century‘, as these collections will provide the key for translating the findings of biomedical research into patient treatments. The upcoming revolution of personalized health can only happen if well-curated patient samples for DNA, tissues and other biomaterials are available. In many European countries, large government-funded initiatives are on the way to build these collections. So far, so good.
DNA colonialism. But what does this have to do with colonialism? The phrase of DNA colonialism has a dual origin and was pretty much invented in parallel in a discussion I had with researches in Israel and Morocco. Given that this idea came up twice independently within a few weeks, it prompted me to put this together as a blog entry. DNA colonialism refers to the phenomenon that researchers from “developed” countries obtain valuable biosamples in “developing” countries for their research. Collaborations with emerging countries are becoming increasingly important given the particular genetic architecture in these countries, which lends itself to gene discovery. Often collaborating researchers in the emerging country are only involved on a very basic level and are sometimes not even involved in the final publication of the data. This phenomenon is frequently observed in the literature when the author list of novel gene findings in consanguineous families do not include researchers from the respective emerging country.
DNA mining leaves little behind other than empty mines. Within these bilateral collaborations, the genetic architecture of the “developing” countries is mined by Western researchers, which is sometimes interpreted as a modern form of colonialism. While there is little doubt that the findings originating from this research are important, there is little benefit for the emerging country. Examples where the gene findings in families are translated into screening programs are rare and -to my knowlegde- only exists for Bedouin population in the Southern part of Israel. Treatment options based on these findings are even rarer. Instances, in which a partnership between a “developing” and “developed” country has resulted in the creation of infrastructure on site are few.
New rules for “DNA trading”. What has to be done to avoid DNA colonialism and what would constitute a fair trade agreement to enable a productive partnership rather than an exploitation of the genetic architecture? Naturally, there is not a single definite solution for this issue, but at least two points may be raised in this context.
Biosamples are becoming more valuable. First, the relative value of biosamples in relation to genetic technologies is increasing. The price for Next Generation Sequencing technologies is constantly dropping and samples can be analyzed at much lower costs. This will naturally help the relationship between both partners as the effort to obtain sample is increasingly valued. Also, there is an increasing awareness regarding the IRB-related issues surrounding biosamples. While many researchers still feel that they lose the control over a given biosample once the sample leaves the country, the entire field is getting increasingly sensitized to these issues. Modern material transfer agreements might include well laid-out plans for what happens with samples once they cross international borders.
Redistribution, fostering intrinsic motivation. Secondly, research environments in developing countries would need to provide a commitment towards generating a sustainable infrastructure in emerging countries. Despite the naive impression that building good research environments is not possible in countries outside the Western sphere, there are examples that suggest otherwise. For example, the Kanaan lab in Bethlehem, Palestine, represents one of the of the premier labs worldwide for the research of genetic hearing loss and Dr. Kanaan has a strong commitment to establishing methods and technologies on site. As in many other instances, lack for funding for R&D is not a matter of resources, but of distribution. The question of to what extent pure external incentives such as large amounts of funding might help resolve these issues is uncertain, and one of the key challenges would be to foster intrinsic motivation for these issues in young researchers.
Implementing some of these issues might help researchers in emerging countries establish long-term plans to generate on-site know-how and infrastructure in order to fully participate as equal partners in international research networks. Eventually, the hunt for epilepsy genes does only start with the identification of these variants. If we ever have the hope that genetic findings in the epilepsies will impact on patient care and treatment, we as the EuroEPINOMICS consortium should strongly motivate our collaborative partners in emerging countries to be more than mere sample providers.
Invitation for the Young Investigators workshop in Kiel, August 23rd-25th, 2012
The workshop. We would like to invite all young scientists within the EuroEPINOMICS program for a joint workshop on pediatric epileptology in late August this year. As a spin-off of the EuroEPINOMICS program, we successfully acquired funding for this workshop through the Hamburg Academy of Science. The idea behind this workshop is to bring together young clinicians and researchers working in the field of pediatric epileptology for an intensive exchange of experiences and knowledge. Researchers from different areas will have the chance to meet and learn from each other and to initiate new collaborations and networks.
Preliminary Program. We are planning to have talks by young researchers who will present a broad overview and provide insights into recent discoveries on the genetic causes of pediatric epilepsies, the pathophysiological mechanisms and the clinical relevance. Keynote lectures by experienced scientists including Olivier Dulac (“Is pediatric epilepsy research beneficial?”) and Kristien Hens (“Ethical issues in paediatric epilepsy research“) will provide an interesting framework for this meeting. Additionally, all participants may present their current research projects and critically discuss them with their peers. Following this full work program, we will enjoy the summer evenings at the Baltic Sea in Kiel. Here you will find the links to the flyer and the preliminary program for the workshop.
Travel support is granted. We will support participants with the travel expenses and this meeting is without a registration fee thanks to the support of the Academy of Science, University of Kiel and other sponsors. For more information visit our website or contact us on YoungResearchers@epilepsiegenetik.de.
We are looking forward to seeing you in Kiel in August. Don’t miss it!
Autosomal recessive neurological disorders are usually distinct and severe diseases that result from the combination of two recessive alleles transmitted by parents. Autosomal recessive disorders are rare, but collectively account for a significant fraction of the genetic morbidity. With respect to neurodevelopmental disorders including epilepsy, neurometabolic disorders and storage disorders frequently result in complex phenotypes that also comprise intellectual disability, behavioural issues and seizures. Particularly in populations with a high degree of consanguinity such as certain Arab populations, recessive disorders represent a major challenge.
Is autism a recessive disorder? Some recessive disorders might present with atypical phenotypes and are “hypomorphic“. Given that recessive disorders may appear sporadic, i.e. only a single child is affected, it is virtually impossible to distinguish the inheritance pattern in a single individual, particularly in small families. Accordingly, the question frequently arises, if and to what extent neurodevelopmental disorders may either be atypical presentations of known recessive disorders or may be due to novel, as yet unknown recessive mutations. Continue reading