The philanthropic Stanley Medical Research Institute has committed to donate $100 million to the Cambridge-based Broad Institute to help unlock the code of the genetics behind serious mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. The money will be used to gather and analyze tens of thousands of DNA samples from people with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, in hopes of determining the complex genetics behind the diseases.
Only in the last year or so has gene-scanning technology reached the point that scientists think that aim is realistic, said Dr. Edward Scolnick , who oversees the Broad’s psychiatric research. Researchers at the Broad and elsewhere are also using these genomic tools to make inroads on cancer, diabetes, and other diseases.
For mental illness, it could take several years to determine the key genetic risk factors, Scolnick said. Once completed, “you can start developing new approaches for diagnosis, new targets for treatment, new understanding of which drugs to use in which people, and turn it into a rational science. That’s the Holy Grail,” Scolnick told The Boston Globe for a story Thursday.
It has long been clear that schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, which afflict more than 6 million Americans, run in families. But the specific genes involved have proven largely elusive.
The symptoms tend to vary so greatly among patients that schizophrenia, for example, may actually be a handful of different diseases. Complicating matters further, these disorders are believed to stem from multiple genes that might be different from patient to patient, along with factors in a patient’s environment.
The Broad’s new Stanley Center for Psychiatric Research will receive $10 million a year for 10 years, out of the Stanley institute’s $40-million-a-year operating budget, said Dr. Michael Knable , the institute’s executive director. Previously the Broad had been spending only about $500,000 a year on psychiatric work.
The Stanley Medical Research Institute has an endowment of over $300 million, and says it is the biggest private source of philanthropic support for psychiatric research in the world.