A boon to schizophrenia research

Large philanthropic gifts often take root from events that helped shape the donor’s life. That certainly has been the case with Ted Stanley, whose foundation announced on Tuesday plans to give The Broad Institute in Cambridge, Mass., an unprecedented US$650 million to study schizophrenia. As reported in the New York Times, Stanley, who earned a fortune selling collectibles, created the Stanley Medical Research Institute in 1989 to fund psychiatric research after watching his college-age son struggle with bipolar disorder in the 1980s. His son finally received effective treatment, and as Stanley told the NYT, it was his desire to “purchase similar happy endings” for others.

The latest gift, unprecedented in the field of mental health, comes at a time when basic science is languishing, government funding flat and drug companies losing interest in developing new candidates for a web of severe, hard-to-treat psychiatric disorders. And the more we learn about some of the genetic underpinnings of these conditions, the more complex they seem. In a study published this week in Nature and explained nicely in this blog from the Simons Foundation Research Institute,  hundreds of researchers from the Psychiatric Genomics Consortium found 104 genetic locations to schizophrenia; many of these genetic “zip codes” had previously been unknown to scientists. The consortium pooled samples from more than 150,000 people, nearly a quarter of who were diagnosed with schizophrenia, providing an enormous sample size that enabled them to find so many locations where the DNA sequences different between those with the disease and those without it.

“This is a pretty exciting moment in the history of this field,” Thomas Insel, director of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) in Bethesda, Maryland, who was not involved in the study, told a Nature science writer.

The hope, of course, is that the data will lead scientists to a better understanding of the biological pathways driving schizophrenia and other neurological disorders that surface without warning. The Broad Institute intends to use the Stanley’s gift to fund genetic investigations, develop better animal and cell models for mental disorders and search for new and more effective drug candidates.

For more about the Psychiatric Genomics Consortium, log on here.