Aug. 6, 2021

Grant will help team find mechanisms underlying epilepsy in infants

Morris Scantlebury's lab is one of a few dedicated to the study of developmental epilepsy in Canada. Funding from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research will help advance that work
Dr. Morris Scantlebury, MD, Cumming School of Medicine
Dr. Morris Scantlebury, MD, a clinician scientist, leads the novel project. ACHRI

Infantile spasms are a rare type of epilepsy in very young children. Current first-line epilepsy treatments often don’t work for these tiny babies.  And because the seizures are so frequent and severe, children fail to thrive and often do not learn to talk or walk. The condition can be life-threatening.

Dr. Morris Scantlebury, MD, a clinician scientist at the Cumming School of Medicine (CSM), has been awarded a Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) Project Grant to investigate this form of epilepsy and its resistance to treatments.

Scantlebury was one of 28 UCalgary researchers to receive funding as part of a package announced by the CIHR in July, which included Project Grants and Priority Announcements. He is a pediatric neurologist at the Alberta Children’s Hospital, an associate professor in the departments of pediatrics and clinical neurosciences at the CSM, and a member of the Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute and the Hotchkiss Brain Institute.

“I am excited to receive funding for this project and the prospect of finding a way to improve the lives of these children, who experience hardships from the earliest days, requiring MRIs, blood and urine tests, and constant care,” says Scantlebury.

His lab is studying whether the ketogenic diet, a high-fat diet, works to effectively control infant seizures. Scantlebury and his team are investigating the role of the acid-sensing ion channel in the brain as key to solving this puzzle. In preliminary results using mice, the team found the diet makes the brain more acidic. The acidity in the brain works to control seizures by activating numerous acid-sensing ion channels. One challenge with this diet: it is nutritionally limited and unsustainable for a child’s overall health.

The preliminary studies for this project were funded by an ACHRI Catalyst Award, the CSM Research Enhancement Program, and Branch Out Foundation.

The researcher will use his preliminary findings to uncover how the ion channels are involved in the anti-seizure effects and whether all brain cells are involved. He is seeking ultimately to test new treatments for infant spasms. 

“Dr. Scantlebury has emerged as a leader in the field of early brain developmental, febrile seizures and infantile spasms, and his work will continue to help babies, children and families in our community,” says Dr. William Ghali, vice-president (research). “CIHR Project grants are a critical source of funding for health researchers, and enable them to pursue ideas with significant potential to benefit Canadians. We thank CIHR for their support, and look forward to all that our researchers will accomplish.”  

While focusing on the acid-sensing ion channels, Scantlebury’s team will explore a broad spectrum of biochemical, molecular, metabolic, genetic and epigenetic changes from the ketogenic diet that may be, in part or combined, contributing to its antiseizure effects.  His lab is one of a few dedicated to the study of developmental epilepsy in Canada. For this project, he has assembled a team of experts in animal models of epilepsy, EEG and behaviour assessments, neurophysiology and ketogenic diet mechanisms.

They include Dr. Cézar Gavrilovici, PhD, at the University of California in San Diego and a former ACHRI postdoctoral fellow, Dr. Quentin Pittman, PhD in the Cumming School of Medicine and Dr. Karlene Barrett, PhD, an ACHRI postdoctoral fellow.

For both his contributions to child health and his dedication to mentoring Black trainees and students, he received a Calgary Black Achievement Award in February 2021. 

Child Health and Wellness
The University of Calgary is driving science and innovation to transform the health and well-being of children and families. Led by the Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute, top scientists across the campus are partnering with Alberta Health Services, the Alberta Children’s Hospital Foundation, and our community to create a better future for children through research.

Brain and Mental Health strategy

Led by the Hotchkiss Brain Institute, Brain and Mental Health is one of six strategic research themes guiding the university towards its Eyes High goals.