Thursday 20 November 2014

Hansard of the Legislative Council

Research into Epileptic Seizures in Tasmania

Mr FINCH (Rosevears)- Mr President, I may have mentioned before in the Chamber that I am the patron of Epilepsy Tasmania and this has become the focus of a significant research project into epilepsy, a condition affecting about 1 per cent of people worldwide. It is a condition we do not know enough about. Epileptic seizures are episodes that can vary from brief and nearly undetected events to long periods of vigorous shaking. Epileptic seizures tend to recur and they have no immediate underlying cause, although some people develop the condition as a result of brain injury, stroke, brain tumour, and drug and alcohol misuse.

In the developed world, onset of the condition is most common in the elderly and infants and that is where the Tasmanian research project comes in. Two highly qualified, senior researchers are the recipients of a grant of $267 000 from Epilepsy Tasmania which will fund a three-year study into infantile epileptic encephalopathy which is being conducted in Tasmania. This was a bequest that came to Epilepsy Tasmania from a Hobart lady, Kathleen Grace.

Infantile epileptic encephalopathy is also known as EIEE and is a very severe form of epilepsy characterised by frequent tonic spasms with onset in the first months of life. Seizures are medically intractable, with the evolution to what is known as REST syndrome at three to six months of age, and then the Lennox-Gastaut syndrome at one to three years of age. EIEE represents approximately 1 per cent of all epilepsies occurring in children less than 15 years of age. Patients have severe developmental delay and poor prognosis. It is obvious that the infantile end of the problem is where we need to concentrate first.

The Tasmanian research project is being carried out by Professor Ingrid Scheffer and Professor Sam Berkovic, as chief investigators for the Tasmanian EIEE project. The pair are joint winners of the 2014 Prime Minister's Prize for Science for their work in the genetics of epilepsy and their CVs are outstanding.

Samuel Berkovic AC is Laureate Professor in the Department of Medicine, University of Melbourne and the Director of Epilepsy Research at Austin Health. He is a clinical neurologist and clinic researcher with a special interest in establishing close research links with basic scientists. His group, together with molecular genetic collaborators in Adelaide and Germany, discovered the first gene for epilepsy in 1995 and subsequently have been involved in the discovery of many known epilepsy genes. This has changed the understanding of the cause of epilepsy and is having a major impact on epilepsy research and also on strategies for diagnosis and for development of new treatments. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 2007 and a Companion of the Order of Australia in 2014.

His research partner is Professor Ingrid Scheffer AO. She is a senior principal research fellow of the Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health and Director of Paediatrics at Austin Health in Melbourne. Professor Scheffer is a physician scientist whose work as a paediatric neurologist and epileptologist at the University of Melbourne, Florey Institute, has led to the field of epilepsy genetics over more than 20 years, in collaboration with Professor Burkovic and monocular geneticists.

These are two very impressive CVs and they are both carrying out their latest research here in Tasmania. This milestone three-year research project straddles the fortieth anniversary of Epilepsy Tasmania which will be marked by a gala dinner on 21 March next year. Here is the chance for Tasmania to be at the forefront of international research into one of the troubling epilepsy problems that society faces.