Dr. Justin Botterill
Photographer: Picture provided by Dr. Justin Botterill
By Sarah Kasleder for SHRF
Dr. Justin Botterill stands at the forefront of groundbreaking biomedical research in the heart of the University of Saskatchewan's College of Medicine. As the recipient of the Top 2023-24 Establishment – Biomedical Grant from Saskatchewan Health Research Foundation (SHRF), Dr. Botterill received an Excellence Award for his work that focuses on unravelling the mysteries of temporal lobe epilepsy (TLE) and exploring innovative treatments.
Dr. Justin Botterill's Path to Excellence
In a recent interview, Dr. Botterill shared pivotal moments that shaped his journey into biomedical research. During his undergraduate years at the University of Saskatchewan, a chance encounter in a psychology course set the stage, sparking an interest in the brain's intricate relationship with health disorders. The supportive guidance of mentors, including Dr. Lisa Kalynchuk, Dr. Hector Caruncho, Dr. Neil Fournier, Dr. Michael Corcoran, Dr. Ron Borowsky, Dr. John Howland, and Dr. Lorin Elias, played a crucial role in steering his epilepsy research.
Dr. Botterill explains, “Epilepsy is so debilitating, and there needs to be more advances, which is one of the many things that piqued my interest. A prime example is that 1 in 3 people don’t respond to any of the current anti-seizure medications. So much more can be researched.”
A proud moment in Dr. Botterill's career was attaining his Ph.D., breaking new ground for his college-educated family. Dr. Botterill humbly reminisces, “It might seem small, but small things add up. I can remember one of my very first authorships was a chapter in a book, and I gave that copy to my grandfather, and he thought it was the coolest thing seeing his grandson be an author in a book.”
His research contributions, marked by cover features in prestigious journals such as The Journal of Neuroscience, added layers to his sense of achievement. These victories propelled him forward, and his passion for epilepsy research deepened.
Decoding the Brain's Language: The Significance of the Hippocampus
Dr. Botterill's research revolves around the hippocampus, a critical brain region in understanding and treating epilepsy. Temporal lobe epilepsy, affecting 50 million people worldwide, often finds its epicentre in the hippocampus.
“Through our work with mice, we have seen that if you preserve the integrity of the hippocampus, you can prevent or reduce seizures. Targeting the hippocampus is a fruitful but experimental approach,” Dr. Botterill emphasized.
His groundbreaking experiments use light-sensitive proteins in genetically modified mice to selectively manipulate different hippocampal cell types and circuits during seizures. What are light-sensitive proteins? Dr. Botterill explained how he can use light to precisely control different parts of the mice’s brain, specifically the circuits in the hippocampus. It’s as if you flip switches on and off to see which cells are causing the problems.
Dr. Botterill explains how this method differs from current ones: “Unlike hospitals that use brain scans or brain recordings to determine where seizures may occur, our approach allows us to experimentally turn on or off different brain cells to see if they modify seizure outcomes. This strategy changes from a diagnostic approach to a more interactive approach that might identify novel targets for therapeutics. It also differs from anti-seizure medications that target all cells in the body all the time. Through this method, we are only targeting one cell type at a time.”
This precision allows him to make sense of specific pathways contributing to seizures, providing a roadmap for developing more tailored therapeutic interventions.
Cannabinoids and Innovative Treatments
In epilepsy, hyperexcitability is a supercharged condition where certain brain cells in the hippocampus, a vital brain region, become overly active and start firing off electrical signals uncontrollably. You can think of it as like an electrical storm in the brain. Those unexpected and often intense bursts of electrical activity in the brain can set off a chain reaction, which can cause seizures.
One of the promising avenues in Dr. Botterill's research involves testing a compound associated with type 1 cannabinoid receptors to address hyperexcitability. This compound, identified through collaboration with cannabis researcher Dr. Robert Laprairie, aims to mitigate the occurrence and severity of seizures, presenting a promising avenue for epilepsy management and offering a safer and more practical option for treatment without the psychoactive effects associated with marijuana.
Shaping the Future of Epilepsy Research and Researchers alike
Looking ahead, Dr. Botterill envisions expanding his research program to explore different pathways and develop effective treatments for epilepsy. His long-term goal is to bridge the gap between bench and bedside, translating insights from mouse models to human applications.
Dr. Botterill expands on his appreciation for the support from SHRF; “Even though there is not a lot of data on the topics, SHRF is willing to fund projects that are preliminary and a bit of a risk. However, if any of these research projects hit, it can translate into helping people.” The recognition from SHRF's Excellence Award catalyzes these ambitious goals, providing a platform for Dr. Botterill to establish further and aim to fund innovative research in Saskatchewan.
Dr. Botterill advises aspiring researchers, “One thing many students get nervous about is reaching out to faculty. You should reach out to us, as there are always intakes for students and potential for training. We get a lot of emails, but if you demonstrate you are a hard worker and passionate – we will definitely try to help you out.”
A Beacon of Excellence
Winning the SHRF Excellence Award holds deep significance for Dr. Botterill. It not only acknowledges his dedication to epilepsy research but also symbolizes SHRF's willingness to invest in advancing healthcare in Saskatchewan. As Dr. Botterill continues to illuminate the path in biomedical research, his work stands as a beacon of excellence, offering hope for improved treatments and a brighter future for those affected by epilepsy.