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Huge private donation to boost psych research

month_of_brain_webIn an era where federal support for research is drying up — for example, the National Cancer Institute’s budget today is only 75 percent of what it was in 2003 in inflation-adjusted dollars — researchers are often forced to turn to conservative projects. Funding agencies are more likely to support projects whose results are almost certain, and ones that bring incremental progress to their fields. They have become risk-averse and unlikely to support research on risky, challenging areas—even those addressing big, important questions.

This is why Ted Stanley’s $650 million donation to the Broad Institute (click here to read more from this July 22, 2014 Science magazine article) comes at a critical time when federal funding for research is drying up, as is support from pharmaceutical companies for psychiatric research. It’s big news because mental illnesses, like other complex traits (e.g., height) and complex diseases (schizophrenia, cancer and others) are the result of many gene-gene or gene-environment interactions. Long gone are the days when scientists thought of genes as independent functional units with additive effects. Scientists are finding that most complex traits are the result of many genes, each with a very small effect — as described in yesterday’s Nature paper about the hundreds of genes that are associated with schizophrenia. Rather than the individual genes, it’s the network of interacting parts that forms a functional unit and leads to the development of health or disease.

Because of all the possible genetic interactions, the genetic basis of complex traits is really really difficult to study, and it’s probably one reason why pharmaceutical companies have largely given up on developing psychiatric drugs. But as we start to understand the basic biology of complex traits and how they emerge from gene interactions, there is an opportunity to develop new models for the roles of different genes in forming these traits, and ultimately new mechanistic insights that can be leveraged to treat conditions such as schizophrenia. This is, of course, an outline for a long research program — not one that can be reasonably supported by pharmaceutical companies (which need to make a drug and a profit, asap) or by the federal grant cycle (3-5 year research projects).

Stanley’s donation will allow researchers to continue their work, and the long-term continued support is critical for addressing big picture questions such as those posed by complex diseases like schizophrenia. It may take decades, but this research is the path that will take psychiatry from a “bag of tricks that sometimes work” to a more evidence-based, scientific approach to treatment of mental illness.

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