Debate: Does genetic information in humans help us treat patients?

PRO—genetic information in humans helps us treat patients
CON—genetic information does not help at all


  • Antonio V. Delgado-Escueta,

    1. Epilepsy Genetics/Genomics Laboratories, VA Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System, David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, West Los Angeles, California, U.S.A.
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  • Blaise F.D. Bourgeois

    1. Harvard Medical School, Director, Division of Epilepsy and Clinical Neurophysiology, Children’s Hospital, Boston, Massachusetts, U.S.A.
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Address correspondence to Antonio V. Delgado-Escueta, M.D., David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, Epilepsy Genetics/Genomics Laboratories, VA Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System, West Los Angeles, CA 90073, U.S.A. E-mail:



In the past decade, genotyping has started to help the neurologic practitioner treat patients with three types of epilepsy causing mutations, namely (1) SCN1A, a sodium channel gene mutated in Dravet’s sporadic severe myoclonic epilepsy of infancy (SMEI and SMEB); (2) laforin (dual specificity protein phosphatase) and malin (ubiquitin E3 ligase) in Lafora progressive myoclonic epilepsy (PME); and (3) cystatin B in Unverricht-Lundborg type of PME. Laforin, malin, and cystatin B are non–ion channel gene mutations that cause PME. Genotyping ensures accurate diagnosis, helps treatment and genetic counseling, psychological and social help for patients and families, and directs families to organizations devoted to finding cures for specific epilepsy diseases. In SCN1A and cystatin B mutations, treatment with sodium channel blockers (phenytoin, carbamazepine, oxcarbazepine, lamotrigine) should be avoided. Because of early and correct diagnosis by genotyping of SCN1A mutations, the avoidance of sodium channel blockers, and aggressive treatment of prolonged convulsive status, there is hope that Dravet’s syndrome may not be as severe as observed in all past reports. Genotyping also identifies nonsense mutations in Lafora PME. Nonsense mutations can be corrected by premature stop codon readthrough drugs such as gentamicin. The community practitioner together with epilepsy specialists in PME can work together and acquire gentamicin (Barton-Davis et al., 1999) for “compassionate use” in Lafora PME, a generalized lysosome multiorgan storage disorder that is invariably fatal. In Unverricht-Lundborg PME, new cohorts with genotyped cystatin B mutations have led to the chronic use of antioxidant N-acetylcysteine and combination valproate clobazam or clonazepam plus antimyoclonic drugs topiramate, zonisamide, piracetam, levetiracetam, or brivaracetam. These cohorts have minimal ataxia and no dementia, questioning whether the syndrome is truly progressive. In conclusion, not only is genotyping a prerequisite in the diagnosis of Dravet’s syndrome and the progressive myoclonus epilepsies, but it also helps us choose the correct antiepileptic drugs to treat seizures in Dravet’s syndrome and Unverricht-Lundborg PME. Genotyping also portends a brighter future, helping us to reassess the true course, severity, and progressive nature of Dravet’s syndrome and Unverricht-Lundborg PME and helping us craft a future curative treatment for Dravet’s syndrome and Lafora disease. Without the genotyping diagnosis of epilepsy causing mutations we are stuck with imprecise diagnosis and symptomatic treatment of seizures.


Genotyping of epilepsy may help to better understand the genetics of epilepsy, to establish an etiology in a patient with epilepsy, to provide genetic counseling, and to confirm a clinical diagnosis. However, critical analysis reveals that genotyping does not contribute to an improved treatment for the patients. In order to improve treatment, genotyping would have to (1) improve our ability to select the drug of choice for a given epilepsy or epileptic syndrome; (2) improve our ability to predict the individual risk of adverse reactions to certain drugs; (3) improve our ability to avoid unnecessary treatments or treatments that could aggravate seizures.

Many example illustrate the lack of impact of genetic information on the treatment outcome: we do not treat Dravet syndrome more successfully since SCN1A testing became available; we do not treat Lafora disease more successfully since testing for laforin and malin became available; we do not need to know the genetic nature of Unverricht-Lundborg disease or test for the cystatin B mutation in order to select or avoid certain drugs; we do not treat Rett syndrome more successfully since MECP2 testing became available; we do not treat JME more successfully since we know its genetic origin; we do not treat autosomal dominant nocturnal frontal lobe epilepsy more successfully since we know its genetic origin and can test for its mutation.

The clinical characteristics as well as the response to treatment of these epilepsy syndromes have been well established before genotyping became available. It can not be argued that genotyping is necessary for establishing a diagnosis or ensure accurate diagnosis. Since not all individuals with given syndromes have been shown to have the corresponding mutation, the clinical diagnosis must have been based on well-established clinical criteria. In addition, the presence or absence of the mutation in a given patient has never been shown to specifically predict the response to any form of treatment, positive or negative. Finally, the appropriate psychological and social help in a given patient will not depend on the identification of a mutation. This does not leave any role for genotyping in epilepsy for the sole reason of improving treatment of the patient. Claiming that the result of genotyping predicts optimal treatment in certain epilepsies is equivalent to stating that genotyping for diabetes has become available and that, based on this breakthrough, insulin can now be selected as the treatment of choice in those who test positive.