Since Michael Rogawski’s earliest days as a scientist, he wondered how he could apply his basic research findings to clinical problems. Pursuing a Ph.D. at Yale University at the same time he was getting a medical degree, he measured electrical events in single brain neurons, characterized neurotransmitters and examined the effects of experimental drugs, all the while pondering the implications to patients he was seeing.

Rogawski went on to complete a residency in neurology at Johns Hopkins University, then postdoctoral work at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, part of the National Institutes of Health, where he continued conducting fundamental neuroscience research and thinking about how to apply it.

“I felt a strong need to make a real impact on a disease during my lifetime. Epilepsy was a good choice,” says Rogawski.

Now a few decades later, Rogawski is a leading international authority on the treatment of epilepsy, a disease that affects some 1 percent of the population and was described in Egyptian hieroglyphics more than 3,000 years ago. Research from his laboratory led to the development of the newest FDA-approved drug to treat the condition – perampanel – and to the discovery of several other promising drugs in different stages of development.

During his 20 years at the NIH, where he led the Epilepsy Research Section, then since 2007 at UC Davis School of Medicine, Rogawski’s research has been primarily supported by federal grants. However, he keeps the door open for communication with pharmaceutical companies, sharing expertise and occasionally accepting funding for research.

The partnerships provide opportunities to pursue new research directions, gain access to interesting new experimental drugs, and undertake specialized clinical studies. At times, companies have become interested in therapies being studied in Rogawski’s laboratory and UC Davis’ Office of Research has been able to spin them off into licensing arrangements that provide the possibility for the novel treatments to be developed as commercial products.

“Government and academia support innovation but are not equipped to bring products to market,” says Rogawski. “Companies provide the way to ensure that the innovation benefits patients.”

He notes that pharmaceutical companies need encouragement to pursue therapy development for conditions like epilepsy where the need for new treatments is great but the business justification is not always clear.

Once companies do decide to pursue a complex disorder, they can benefit from input by researchers who who have expertise with approaches to identify new treatment agents in cell based assays and animal models. They also need expertise selecting the best molecule, deciding how to test it in clinical trials, and advice on navigating regulatory hurdles. Company personnel generally work in many disease areas throughout their careers and must rely on experts like Rogawski who have deep knowledge to provide guidance.

Rogawski also provides advice to federal regulators on policy issues and the approval of specific products. As an FDA special government employee, he advises the agency through service on review panels. Rogawski utilizes the experience he gains in his teaching. He is an instructor in a graduate level course on drug discovery and development, and co-directs a course on developing treatments for brain disorders that is offered at the national level with the support of NIH.

The targets of epilepsy treatment are often ion- or neurotransmitter-gated channels that are ubiquitous in the nervous system, explains Rogawski. Treatments that prevent seizures may also affect other parts of the brain, leading to problems with thinking and movement, for example.

This makes drug development challenging. The basic research that underlies drug development is a decades-long process that generally only university and government laboratories have the societal mission to carry out.

Drug companies have the financial means to conduct the expensive later-stage development, but universities have a role at this stage too.

“My research has benefited greatly from being at UC Davis – we have an enormous range and depth of expertise for collaboration on the campus and at the medical center, a diverse patient population desirous of new treatments, and excellent clinical trial support,” says Rogawski. “Partnering with pharmaceutical companies gives us the opportunity to bring unique new treatments to patients.”