A doctor at the Royal Free London has been given a prestigious research award for her work in understanding more about the epilepsy drug Valproate.

Dr Heather Angus-Leppan, consultant neurologist and epilepsy lead at the Royal Free London, has been given the 2021 Eminent Scientist and Outstanding Scholar and Millennium Golden International Award from the International Research Promotion Council (IRPC), a forum made up of scientists from around the world. 

The award recognises Dr Angus-Leppan’s research on Valproate, a drug taken by patients with epilepsy, bipolar disorder and in some countries by those who have migraines. 

The drug is very effective in reducing the chance of people with epilepsy suffering seizures which can often be harmful and in some cases fatal.

But there are increasing restrictions on the use of Valproate in many countries, including the UK, because of concerns that, when taken during pregnancy, it can cause physical defects or developmental problems in the developing foetus. It is estimated that there is a 10% chance of a baby having developmental problems and a 40% risk of having physical defects  following exposure to Valproate while in the womb.

However, Dr Angus-Leppan’s research showed that for patients who switch to an alternative medicine, there is a high risk of patients having a break-through seizure. 

The study assessed the successes and pitfalls since it became compulsory for a specialist to complete a risk form with any  woman of childbearing potential taking Valproate.

Dr Angus-Leppan said: “Balancing the rights of women and their unborn children is complex, and it is known that Valproate can cause serious malformations in the unborn child if women take it during pregnancy. On the other hand, for some women it is the only medication that controls their epilepsy. This study showed that those changing from Valproate to alternatives had a 33-43% risk of breakthrough seizures which can be serious and, very occasionally, fatal.

“Women need to be fully informed of all the risks so they can, with the help of their doctor, make the right decision for them.”   

Dr Angus-Leppan worked on the study with Dr Melika Moghim, then a Royal Free Hospital medical student and a national team including Professor Rohit Shankar, Professor Hannah Cock, Dr Lucy Kinton and Marie Synnott-Wells.  A follow up study is planned for late 2022.   

The Royal Free Charity funded this study, which led to the award and publication of more than 15 papers and presentations.  

If anyone would like to find out more about the study, published in Acta Neurologica, please contact rf.epilepsyteam@nhs.net

Dr Angus-Leppan pictured below with Dr Gil Shalom, head of grants and research at the Royal Free Charity and also pictured with her medal (main picture).