How engineers find solutions for epilepsy, dementia and sleeping problems

Hersenen

Epilog, a spin-off company from Ghent University, is rapidly becoming a global player in localizing certain disorders in our brains. They have already shown their worth in the treatment of epilepsy, and the techniques look promising when it comes to identifying dementia and sleeping problems.

In Flanders, about 60,000 people suffer from epilepsy — with medication no longer helping about one third of them. What can help is the partial or complete removal of certain areas of the brain that cause the epilepsy. But that is only possible if the brain surgeon knows exactly where these zones are located in the patient. This precision is possible thanks to Epilog’s software.

 

Professor Boon’s question

“Can you help us precisely locate epileptic discharges in a three-dimensional view of the brain?” It was this question from Professor Paul Boon, head of neurology at UZ Gent that initiated the Epilog story about five years ago. Professor Boon posed the question to a small group of doctoral students from the Faculty of Engineering & Architecture who were researching medical imaging. One of those doctoral students was Gregor Strobbe (33), today co-CEO of Epilog.

Gregor Strobbe: “Before my PhD I was working on analyzing EEGs (electroencephalograms). This scanning method has long been a trusted technique for measuring brain waves. In my PhD I investigated how you could precisely map what an EEG shows. Which activity takes place where? Could we produce a complete 3D image of the brain, down to the centimetre, based on an EEG and an MRI scan?”

After the question from Professor Boon, Strobbe immediately went to work: “Together with Pieter van Mierlo and Vincent Keereman, among others, both now professors at Ghent University, we studied the EEGs of epilepsy patients. We were able to show the treatment team exactly where the so-called spikes — the epileptic discharges — took place in the brains of their patients.”

Strobbe: “I realized then that our imaging was very useful, but the question was how could we use the technology. I was able to further explore the commercial possibilities of this method through a post-graduate grant.”

In October 2016, it eventually led to the establishment of NV Epilog with seed capital from IMEC and two UGent professors.

 

Success – also in the USA

Epilog developed proprietary software to map the spikes in the brains of epilepsy sufferers — in a precise and three-dimensional manner — based on EEG and MRI scans. This information is useful to physicians.

Strobbe: “Of course we never see the patients themselves, but I am convinced that our technology has already helped many people. Recently, a distant relative of mine came to our office with a box of wine to thank us. He had undergone surgery on the basis of our analysis, among other things, and has since been free from epileptic attacks.”

"Recently, a distant relative of mine came to our office with a box of wine to thank us. He had undergone surgery on the basis of our analysis, among other things, and has since been free from epileptic attacks.”
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Today, the spin-off already has ten employees and that number will increase in the coming months. Neurologists and specialized centres for the treatment of epilepsy in Belgium, Norway, the Netherlands, Germany and the United States, among others, send their EEG and MRI results to Epilog for analysis. Up to fifty percent of these brain mappings are done for US treatment centres. It is possible that this share may increase still further after a partnership with Persist, a major US company involved in EEG analysis.

It’s the case that the Covid-19 crisis has caused a drop in sales for Epilog, but the future for the spin-off still looks bright. After all, there are now practical systems that let patients do an EEG entirely by themselves or with the help of a home nurse. This will ensure an ever-growing supply of available brain data.

There is also interest from the pharmaceutical industry. Strobbe: “Major players such as UCB and the Japanese EISAI are already customers. They develop new medication for epilepsy. When testing them, our imaging is very useful to show whether those new drugs are reaching the right brain areas. In fact, pharmaceutical companies are currently one of our strongest growth areas.”

 

Dementia and sleep problems

Epilog also wants to become a major player in the research of other brain disorders. The company has just signed a four-year deal with the Flemish government to work on the early detection of dementia.

Strobbe: “With our technology we can map the type of dementia someone suffers at an early stage on the basis of EEGs. This rapid diagnosis is essential to initiate therapy in good time and thereby guarantee the patient has a better quality of life for longer. Furthermore, we think that in the near future we’ll also be able to play a role in the precise localization of sleep problems in the brain.”

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