How SCN1A comes to its own rescue

Modifier genes. When I compiled the most important updates on SCN1A genetics a few weeks ago, I forgot one of the most unusual studies that makes you pause and think. To provide some background: ever since the initial discovery of familial epilepsy syndromes such as Genetic Epilepsy with Febrile Seizures Plus (GEFS+), the intrafamilial range of presentations has been a big mystery. Within single families, we typically observe a very broad spectrum of phenotypes. Furthermore, in some families, the range of phenotypes is extreme – the same SCN1A variant may cause Dravet Syndrome in one individual, while other individuals are unaffected. In a recent study, we stumbled upon an unusual cause for this variability: a second SCN1A variant that neutralizes the pathogenic effect of the familial variant. Here is a summary of this unusual story. Continue reading

Epilepsy genetics is more than just sending gene panels

Genetic testing. I smiled into my camera during our virtual Wednesday teaching session — pausing for effect. One of our junior team members has just made the statement that one of our patients qualified for a sponsored genetic testing program. I politely corrected them: “I think what you wanted to say was that this program qualifies for doing genetic testing on our patient”. The focus of epilepsy genetics is changing, shifting away from genetic testing to what genetic tests mean and how we can use them for better treatment. However, getting to a diagnosis requires the ability to perform genetic testing in the first place. And the framework for how this can be accomplished is vastly different within the US and internationally. In this second blog post on our review on epilepsy precision medicine, I would like to revisit the current state of genetic testing in the epilepsies. And yes, genetic testing should be standard of care and affordable for people with epilepsy. It’s that simple. Period. Continue reading

The new genetics of Dravet Syndrome

Sundance. I was asked to give a talk on the genetics of Dravet Syndrome at the Dravet Syndrome Foundation meeting in Fort Worth, Texas. I started my presentation asking the question whether there is actually anything novel to talk about given that it is well established that Dravet Syndrome is due to loss-of-function variants in SCN1A, and the challenges are in finding better treatments, not in refining SCN1A genetics. However, this is not quite true. There are several new aspects regarding the genetics of Dravet Syndrome that are worth highlighting. Continue reading

The Accelerando of epilepsy precision medicine

Half Moon Bay. Earlier this week, our precision medicine paper came online in Epilepsia, summarizing the state of the art in epilepsy precision medicine in 2022. This paper was initially inspired by the 2019 Precision Medicine Workshop in Washington, D.C., which was the sequel to our initial Half Moon Bay Conference in 2014. Yes, this was a publication that was almost three years in the making and I would like to give a shout-out to Juliet Knowles for pushing this herculean effort across the finish line. In this post, I would like to revisit what precision medicine actually is, sharing some of our initial thoughts that did not make it into the final version of our manuscript. But let’s first clarify what the Accelerando is. Continue reading

ANO3, SCN1A, IL10 – the new genetics of febrile seizures

GWAS. Febrile seizures affect up to 5% of all children between six months and six years and are by far the most common seizure type. While seizures in the setting of fever may be a manifestation of an underlying epilepsy, in the majority of cases, children only have one or two febrile seizures in their lifetimes. We know from twin studies that there is a strong genetic component to febrile seizures, and you might think that we would know more about the most common seizure type. However, this has not been the case until recently. The genetics of febrile seizures have been largely understudied, and we know much more about the genetics of rare epilepsies than about the genetics of febrile seizures. A recent genome-wide association study has been a game changer, highlighting a combination of fever response genes and neuronal genes in the etiology of febrile seizures. Continue reading

The SCN1A rs6732655 enigma – a reply

rs6732655. I acknowledge that the title of this blog post looks like my keyboard is broken, but please bear with me. Last month, I blogged about a recent genome-wide association by the BioBank Japan (BBJ), discussing the evidence for a Single Nucleotide Polymorphism (SNP) in the vicinity of the SCN1A gene (rs6732655). In a prior study, the SNP in question was initially found to be associated with epilepsy and I discussed the fact that this SNP, albeit not significant by itself, was also seen at a higher frequency in cases than in controls in the epilepsy cohort of the BBJ study. I received some comments regarding this post and it was pointed out that my reasoning was incorrect given that rs6732655 was not nominally significant in the BBJ study. Therefore, this study was not a replication study in itself. Let me retrace my steps and revisit where my hunch came from to write the initial blog post. Continue reading

Entering the phenotype era – HPO-based similarity, big data, and the genetic epilepsies

Semantic similarity. The phenotype era in the epilepsies has now officially started. While it is possible for us to generate and analyze genetic data in the epilepsies at scale, phenotyping typically remains a manual, non-scalable task. This contrast has resulted in a significant imbalance where it is often easier to obtain genomic data than clinical data. However, it is often not the lack of clinical data that causes this problem, but our ability to handle it. Clinical data is often unstructured, incomplete and multi-dimensional, resulting in difficulties when trying to meaningfully analyze this information. Today, our publication on analyzing more than 31,000 phenotypic terms in 846 patient-parent trios with developmental and epileptic encephalopathies (DEE) appeared online. We developed a range of new concepts and techniques to analyze phenotypic information at scale, identified previously unknown patterns, and were bold enough to challenge the prevailing paradigms on how statistical evidence for disease causation is generated. Continue reading

GNAO1 and 13K genomes – rare disease sequencing on a national level

WGS. Whole-genome sequencing is increasingly used to understand the cause of rare diseases in a research and diagnostic context. However, while the usefulness of this technology has been shown in smaller studies, it remains unclear whether strategies to understand the cause of rare disorders through whole genome sequencing can be performed on a national level. A recent study in Nature reported the first results from a national sequencing campaign for rare disorders in the UK, including the analysis of more than 13,000 genomes. In this blog post, I would like to focus on the neurogenetics component of this enormous study, which identified disease-causing variants in GNAO1 as the most common cause within the study’s subgroup of neurological and developmental disorders. Continue reading

Common genetic risk factors for epilepsy in the Japanese population

GWAS. While our blog mainly deals with monogenic epilepsies, assessing common genetic risk factors through genome-wide association studies has been an established way of understanding potential genetic contributors to both common and rare disorders. More recently, polygenic risk scores have entered the stage, composite measures of many common variants which explain a significant proportion of the overall population risk for epilepsy. However, a major limitation of many genome-wide association studies has been the focus on populations of European ancestry. So far, very few studies have examined common genetic risk factors in the epilepsies in non-European populations. In a recent publication examining results from the BioBank Japan Project, 42 disorders were examined in more than 200,000 individuals, including the epilepsies. While no single epilepsy variant stood out, the study provides an interesting confirmation of a previously known common risk factors for the epilepsies. Continue reading

How common is rare? A population-based study into genetic childhood epilepsies

What is the most common monogenic cause of epilepsy? This is a question we often ask students and trainees who rotate with us in our Epilepsy Neurogenetics Clinic. This is not meant to be a trick question, and the answer we previously sought was based largely on published studies, estimates of population frequency of individual genetic epilepsies, and our own clinical experience. And we are sometimes surprised by how skewed such a view can be. Now, a new study by Symonds and colleagues answers the question of population-incidence of common genetic epilepsy syndromes through a prospective population-based cohort study in Scotland. This study provides important data on risk factors that are more likely to predict a genetic diagnosis in infants and young children with seizures and answers the question of which genetic epilepsy is most common. I was initially surprised, but really not surprised at all, by the answer. Continue reading