Central Florida doctor finds uncommon remedy for epilepsy

Nicotine patch offers help for epileptic girl

By Paul Giorgio - Producer

ORLANDO, Fla. - A simple nicotine patch may be the remedy for many who suffer from epilepsy.

Until a few months ago, 4-year-old Karen Macon was suffering from over 20 seizures a night.

Her mom, Anne, said her daughter would wake up every 30 minutes.

"She'd wake up tired every morning, with dark circles under her eyes," Anne Macon said.

The Macons saw doctor after doctor, but none was able to stop the seizures. 

"As a parent you're watching this go on and there's nothing you can do." she said. "It's heartbreaking, you know, because I couldn't help her."

That was the case until they met Dr. Ki Hyeong Lee. The neurologist at Florida Hospital prescribed an over-the-counter product, a nicotine patch, and Karen's seizures stopped almost immediately.

"Her mom called.  She's not having any more seizures." said Lee, as he recalls getting the good news. "So we decided to bring her to the hospital to confirm."

It was an out-of-the-box remedy for a rare condition.

Epilepsy affects over 2.5 million people nationwide, half-a-million of whom are kids. And while seizure medicine helps up to 70 percent of those who suffer, many are left without a cure.

Lee said if the medications don't work, people have to find the genetic cause.

"Epilepsy is caused by multiple different reasons and when you know the specific reason behind the epilepsy, you can find a specific treatment," he said.

Just last month, Florida Gov. Rick Scott signed a bill allowing the use of medical marijuana for kids suffering from epilepsy.

The controversial medicine only works for certain patients, however.

Marijuana, though, isn't the only unorthodox remedy being used to help kids with seizures.

Lee discovered that patients with the particular genetic form of epilepsy that Karen has have an unusually high smoking rate as adults.

"There is a high instance of smoking with this specific condition," he said. "And part of the explanation was maybe smoking was helping them so they continue to smoke."

Using this theory, he suggested Karen try a small nicotine patch, the kind smokers use to get off cigarettes.

"If you have a condition that does not have any known treatment, we can always use medicine from other purposes," he said.

He said a study suggested nicotine was changing the structure of receptors in the brain.

"When they apply nicotine, somehow it changes the structure of the ion channel and it opened up, so that's where I took the idea. Why can't we try nicotine in some safe way to really improve the condition?" he said.

Karen's mom says through trial and error they found the correct dosage.

"I gave her a sixteenth of a patch, and it worked. She's been doing that for about three months now. She does not have any seizures when she has the patch," he said.

Lee added that while it's only been a few months since Karen started using the patch, he believes the negative side effects with smoking won't translate to Karen's use of the patch.

Lee said more studies are needed, but for now it's helping Karen lead a normal life.

"Same thing with medical marijuana.  It seems to be working for a certain form of epilepsy, but not every case, just like this," Lee said.  "We know it's effective, but we don't know what's going to be the long term effect."

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