What will happen in the field of serious mental illness when human need, scientific progress and a major influx of funding converge? Scientists on Tuesday predicted that the world could see the same kind of progress in understanding schizophrenia and bipolar disorder that's been seen in the last decade in the fight against cancer.
That, in turn, could lead to better treatments, earlier diagnosis and more opportunities to head off the emergence of full-blown psychological illness in those at greatest risk.
Such a path forward became evident Tuesday with two new developments: the publication of a scientific article identifying 108 locations on the human genome associated with the risk of developing schizophrenia -- the largest-ever genome-association study focused on mental illness -- and the announcement of a philanthropist's $650-million commitment to fuel the search for mental illnesses' biological underpinnings.
At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on Tuesday, Eric S. Lander, the founder and president of the Broad Institute, announced that collectibles entrepreneur Ted Stanley had made the record-setting funding commitment. Moved to action by a son's diagnosis of bipolar disorder, the 83-year-old Stanley has promised, now and after his death, to underwrite a vastly expanded hunt for the genetic contributions to and the molecular processes at work in severe mental illness.
The article on the genetic variations seen in schizophrenia was published Monday by the journal Nature. The findings were drawn from the genetic data of about 37,000 people.
That new research came as advances in genetic sequencing are promising to unlock the mysteries of genes' roles in complex chronic illnesses such as diabetes, cancer and depression. While the roots of "Mendelian" genetic disorders such as Huntington's disease and polycystic kidney disease can be traced to a single gene defect, illnesses such as schizophrenia are likely to spring from many genetic variations, interacting with one another and the environment.
Uncovering the genetic contributions to mental illness, therefore, will be a far more difficult task. To glean patterns from large-population studies, researchers will need newly available techniques to analyze whole genomes and to process massive amounts of data fast and cheaply. Making the task more difficult: Genetic variations very likely interact with such factors as poor parenting, childhood trauma and adolescent substance abuse to produce full-blown psychiatric disease.
Over the last decade, the combination of major research funding and advances in genomic understanding have begun to shed new light on the molecular processes that allow cancers to gain a foothold, and that has led to better, more targeted cancer treatments.
Backed by a full cast of pioneers in genetic research, Lander said, it may take a decade or more but that Stanley's funding for research on psychiatric disease could do the same for illnesses such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.
"We're poised for real advances here," said National Institutes of Health director Dr. Francis Collins in a taped tribute shown Tuesday. "We're not just going to wring our hands here. We're going to do something."
The confluence of money and scientific promise comes at a time when drug companies have retrenched in their efforts to develop and bring to market new therapies for the most disabling psychiatric diseases, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.
Worldwide, mental illness is one of the leading causes of disability: schizophrenia affects 2.4 million American adults and bipolar disorder an additional 5.7 million -- close to 4% of the adult population. The need is there, but without a better grip on the biological processes at work in mental illness, drug companies are wary of investing in new therapies for these diseases.
With the discovery of 108 potential genetic switches for mental illness, said Steven E. Hyman, director of Broad Institute's new Stanley Center for Psychiatric Research, "we've turned what was a scientifically forbidding landscape into a landscape with toeholds and opportunities."
Five years ago, Lander said, "we didn't know a single gene" associated with schizophrenia. Now "the pharmaceutical companies that left this field ... are now putting their toes in the water."
At the Stanley Center, scientists will forge partnerships with neuroscientists around the world to identify the ways in which schizophrenia and other psychiatric illness take root and hijack the brain's normal function, distorting patients' perceptions, disrupting their emotional control and sapping their cognitive powers. In keeping with the Broad Institute's founding principles, the center expects to share with other researchers in the field not only the research it generates, but the raw data it collects.
"No one can do this alone," Lander said.
Ted Stanley made his fortune minting commemorative coins and other collectibles and marketing them directly to the public: 45 years ago, his Danbury Mint offered the first of 21 medals celebrating the 1969 moon landing. His estimated net worth is $1.3 billion, according to the Foundation Center's website, Glasspockets.org.
Stanley's son, Jonathan, was diagnosed with bipolar illness after experiencing a psychotic break during college. Now an attorney and an advocate for those with mental illness, his bipolar disorder has been treated successfully with lithium. In an interview shown Tuesday, the elder Stanley called his son's diagnosis "a revelation moment" that has guided his philanthropy since.
I'm all about the brain. Follow me on Twitter at https://twitter.com/LATmelissahealy.
Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times