Professors Sam Berkovic and Ingrid Scheffer have changed the way the world thinks about epilepsy.

For their contribution to the study of epilepsy, its diagnosis, management and treatment, they have been awarded the $300,000, 2014 Prime Minister’s Prize for Science.

Laureate Professor Sam Berkovic AC and Professor Ingrid Scheffer AO from the University of Melbourne Departments of Medicine at Austin Hospital and the Florey Department of Neuroscience and Mental Health have contributed to worldwide efforts to explore and map inherited epilepsy.

Professor Berkovic said “Twenty years ago, doctors tended to regard most forms of epilepsy as acquired rather than inherited. In other words, they believed epilepsy was mostly due to injury: the result of things like a crack on the head in a car accident, a bad fall in the playground, a tumour, or something having gone wrong in labour. Parents felt responsible, and the resulting guilt was enormous.”

The two clinician-researchers have led the way in finding a genetic basis for many epilepsies, building on their discovery of the first ever link between a specific gene and a form of epilepsy.
“Finding answers to the puzzle of epilepsy has been of profound importance for families,” Professor Scheffer said.

Along the way, Professors Berkovic and Scheffer discovered that a particularly severe form of epilepsy, thought to result from vaccination, was actually caused by a gene mutation. This finding dispelled significant concerns about immunisation.
Their discoveries of the connections between epilepsy and genes have opened the way to better targeted research, diagnosis and treatment for epilepsy.

Together with collaborators, they have shown that genes can lead to seizures in different ways in different forms of epilepsy.

“An important cause, for instance, is interference with the movement of nutrients across nerve cell membranes. In one of these cases, treatment using a diet that avoids glucose is effective,” she said.

Professor James McCluskey, Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research) at the University of Melbourne said “Their clinical work combined with research has contributed to a deeper understanding of the causes of epilepsy and is having a major impact on epilepsy research worldwide and on strategies for diagnosis and development of new treatments,” he said.