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Gene Treatment for Rare Epilepsy Causes Brain Side Effect in 2 Children

Erika Check Hayden (NY Times)

October 26, 2022

Valeria Schenkel was born with a rare and devastating form of epilepsy. A personalized genetic treatment helped, but a brain side effect led to her death. Mario and Alexandra Schenkel

Weeks after Valeria Schenkel took an experimental drug named after her, the daily seizures that had afflicted her from birth became less frequent. But the drug caused fluid to build up in her brain, and a year later, she died at age 3.

The drug was given to only one other child, and she experienced the same side effect and nearly died last year.

The drug contained snippets of genetic material tailor-made to turn off the mutated gene causing the extremely rare form of epilepsy that these children were born with. A handful of researchers and nonprofit organizations have raised millions of dollars to make these treatments, known as antisense drugs, for at least 19 children and adults with severe diseases that are too rare to garner interest from pharmaceutical companies. The treatments have helped some of these patients, raising hopes that the personalized approach might one day save thousands of lives.

But the brain side effect, known as hydrocephalus, reported on Sunday at the American Neurological Association meeting in Chicago, is a blow for the niche medical field that has made rapid progress over the past five years. Hydrocephalus happens when too much fluid fills cavities in the brain, increasing pressure on brain tissue and risking lethal damage if untreated.

“I think it’s worth saying: No question that encountering hydrocephalus has been a setback, sobering and important,” said Dr. Timothy Yu, the neurologist and genetics researcher at Boston Children’s Hospital who developed the drug, known as valeriasen.

But traditional drug companies, he added, are not helping patients with thousands of rare, untreatable and rapidly progressing diseases that cause death and severe disabilities. Personalized genetic treatments may be their only hope.

“We have to learn as much as we can from each and every one, because they’re just so incredibly valuable in every sense,” Dr. Yu said.

Hayden, E. C. (2022, October 26). Gene treatment for rare epilepsy causes brain side effect in 2 children. The New York Times.



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