Inside the brain of a developing child are tens of billions of neuron cells, each sending trillions of signals in a mindboggling power grid of electrical activity. But sometimes those electric signals go haywire, interrupting normal brain function and causing seizures. Understanding why that happens and how it affects the young brain is what drives Dr. Tim Benke, Director of Research in the Neuroscience Institute at Children’s Hospital Colorado.
“Having seizures during childhood can adversely affect how the brain wires itself,” says Dr. Benke. “My research seeks to prevent and treat the effects of early-life seizures on the developing brain.”
In 2013, the Ponzio family established the Ponzio Family Chair in Pediatric Neurology Research with Dr. Benke as the inaugural chairholder. Dr. Benke says the funds from this endowment have enabled his team to make significant progress in identifying novel treatments for seizures. For example, Dr. Benke recently helped to develop a drug aimed at desensitizing brain cell receptors following a seizure, thus minimizing potential damage to neurons.
“We think we’ve identified a brand new class of drug that can be used to prevent the long-term effects of seizures,” says Dr. Benke. “This is a perfect example of how this endowed chair has been instrumental.”
So far, the drug has been used only in animals, but early results are promising, and the drug will soon be tested in clinical trials.
Now, Dr. Benke is looking to donors to support the next big breakthrough in epilepsy. With the help of groundbreaking technologies and campuswide partnerships, he is devising a way to recreate a patient’s neurons and then conduct rapid high-volume drug testing on the cells. Using this method, Dr. Benke and his colleagues believe they can test how the genetic mutations in a patient’s DNA affect the function of the neurons. This could shed light on the specific ways that neurogenetic diseases develop, which can lead to novel treatments for those with epilepsy and a range of other conditions.
“This could provide a huge step forward in developing personalized medicine approaches for treating epilepsy patients worldwide,” says Dr. Benke. “Federal research funds are likely to be even harder to acquire in the future, so philanthropy will continue to be critical.”