“Once a drug has been shown to be effective in preventing seizures in an animal model, we look for side effects in that model,” Rogawski says. Does the drug interfere with motor coordination or memory, for example? Researchers also need to determine the dose that will prevent seizures with the lowest incidence of side effects, work that also can only be performed in whole animals.
Drugs developed in Rogawski’s laboratory at NIH are now being tested in people, a potential boon to the 2.5 million Americans who have epilepsy. Although advances in cell culture and computer modeling have reduced the need for animals in research, Rogawski notes, “We still have an absolute requirement for animal models,” in studying diseases like epilepsy. “The brain has billions of neurons … and the complexity of that system is far greater than a computer can simulate. It is absolutely essential to study the action of potential new drugs in a complete nervous system.”
Rogawski’s research takes advantage of the fact that epilepsy is not only a human disease. Seizures occur frequently in many purebred dogs and in baboons, as well as other species. But Rogawski and his colleagues use primarily rats and mice in their research. “They breed easily and we can control their genetics much more easily,” he says.
Genetically modified rats and mice, like those used in Rogawski’s research, are an important new tool for researchers. By altering a specific gene, scientists are able to breed rodents with diseases similar or identical to those in humans. Genetically modified rats and mice are often