Epilepsy: In pursuit of a cure

Written by Dr Farooq Shaikh, Jeffrey Cheah School of Medicine and Health Sciences

Epilepsy is the third-largest illness among other neurological disorders affecting millions of people around the world. An international meta-analysis found that out of every 157 individuals, the prevalence rate is around one. Malaysia alone has about 320,000 people who have epilepsy. It impacts not only people but families as well. The economic pressure is incredibly high.

There are around 70 million people around the globe suffering from epilepsy, and yet, there is still no cure! About 80% of patients are staying in developing countries. This interested Dr Farooq Shaikh to pursue his research in the discovery of a possible treatment for epilepsy using the experimental epilepsy approach.

“My interest has always been in brain sciences. If you look at the neurological disorders and the number of people suffering from it, you realize that a cure is still lacking. The medication available can prevent symptoms of epilepsy and does not correct the root cause of the disease.”

Our team at Monash University Malaysia has developed a zebrafish model to study the co-morbidities (secondary condition) of epilepsy. This newly developed model using the zebrafish will not only allow scientists to understand the mechanism of the disease but also will help in developing safer drugs. The zebrafish is one of the best models to study human diseases as 84 per cent of genes in the fish are similar to humans. His research was published in Frontiers in Pharmacology and received the Malaysian Society of Neurosciences’ best publication award in 2018.

“Finding a cure for epilepsy is our ‘holy grail’, and we hope our zebra-fish research will help us to improve the quality of life of the patients.”

Dr Farooq and his team are also working on unravelling the molecular mechanisms involved in disease progression, especially the role of inflammatory markers in epilepsy. Utilizing again zebrafish models, his group is studying dynamics of a crucial inflammatory biomarker HMGB1 which has a controversial role in many neurological and non-neurological disease conditions. His team has published several high impact publications explaining the role of HMGB1.

Another interesting project on which Dr Farooq is working with a colleague from Arts & Social Sciences is about tackling disease-associated stigma and the role of religion. An important point to note is that the project is not an attempt to debunk religious rituals or beliefs but to empower religious institutions/leaders with a broader scope of information regarding diseases that members of their respective communities may suffer from and epilepsy in particular.

Dr Farooq will be contributing to the medical expertise in epilepsy research. He has extensively published in the area of epilepsy. He is an elected regional representative of the young epilepsy section (YES) of the International League Against Epilepsy (ILAE) and also a member of ILAE Task-Force for Advocacy & Research. He is involved in efforts on epilepsy advocacy in the Asia & Oceania region.