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Ned Patterson examines a black dog while the owner looks on

Canine epilepsy expert Ned Patterson tests the nerve response of Akota while owner Sean Austad looks on.

Tracking epilepsy

Scientists enlist dogs to help track and treat epilepsy

By Jennifer La Forgia

July 24, 2006

Detectives often rely on dogs to track a criminal. Now, scientists searching for better epilepsy treatments and the mutations that cause this troubling disorder are turning to dogs for help.

Ned Patterson, in the College of Veterinary Medicine, is an expert on canine epilepsy. He conducts research into how epilepsy-causing gene mutations pass from one generation of dogs to the next, treats epileptic dogs, and counsels their owners.

When Patterson picked his area of expertise, he didn't expect "people" doctors to be intensely interested in his work, but that's exactly what's happened. It turns out dogs provide a near-perfect model for studying human epilepsy. About 70 to 80 percent of epilepsy in dogs is inherited, and often, a dog will suffer from a form of epilepsy that is virtually the same as that in a human.

And, once an epilepsy-causing gene mutation is found in a dog, it can shorten the search for similar mutations in humans. "Because dogs are inbred, it can be easier to find genes in dogs," said Jeffrey Klausner, dean of the College of Veterinary Medicine, "and, because epilepsy occurs spontaneously in dogs, using them as study models can significantly shorten the timeline to the translational application of drugs. Diseases that occur spontaneously (as epilepsy does in dogs) have the potential of being more like the human disease as opposed to diseases that are induced as in mice."

It turns out dogs provide a near-perfect model for studying human epilepsy. About 70 to 80 percent of epilepsy in dogs is inherited, and often, a dog will suffer from a form of epilepsy that is virtually the same as that in a human.

In dogs and people, epilepsy is seen as recurring seizures characterized by abnormal bursts of electrical activity in the brain. While 4 to 5 percent of dogs are affected, it is present in about 1 percent of people. Patterson said, "Having a dog with epilepsy is like living in an earthquake zone; you know it's going to happen, but you don't know when."

Jim Cloyd, an expert in antiepileptic drugs from the College of Pharmacy, is convinced that studying the dog model is "bi-directionally" valuable to dogs and humans. Cloyd works with neurologist Ilo Leppik who heads the College of Pharmacy's Epilepsy Research and Education Program. "We only recently found out about Dr. Patterson's work and about a year ago we began a collaboration," Cloyd said.

The goal of their project with Patterson is to determine if the epilepsy drug levitiracetam can be safely and effectively delivered as an injection into a muscle. This would be valuable because intramuscular injection works more rapidly than the drug's current oral option and could be given during a seizure.

Working with Cloyd and Leppik, Patterson has given intramuscular injections to dogs. Leppik said, "Our results show levitiracetam causes no tissue damage in dogs and is absorbed rapidly. This is a first step in what I see as a long-term collaboration with the College of Veterinary Medicine in which we can quickly study problems that affect animals and people."

Patterson also participates in the Canine Epilepsy Project, a joint effort with the University of Missouri, where he works with former U graduates Liz Hansen and Gary Johnson. A component of the project is a Web site that provides information on canine epilepsy. The site also serves as a conduit for Patterson to collect medical histories as well as DNA samples from epileptic dogs. To date, he has 7,200 samples, which come to him as vials of blood. With this bank of canine medical and DNA information, Patterson can determine much about how certain epilepsies are inherited. In the Vislas breed, for example, he has narrowed the search for an epilepsy mutation to four sites on four chromosomes.

One of Patterson's goals is to identify the epilepsy mutations in dogs so treatment can be targeted to the specific type of epilepsy. Cloyd and Leppik share the goal of targeted treatment. Until the specific epilepsy can be identified, broad-spectrum treatments must be given. The hope is that as researchers identify more epilepsy-causing genes in the canine world, this will shorten the path to finding them in humans.

Although relying on dogs is nothing new, scientists are discovering new ways they can help us track improvements in health.