March 09, 2007

$100 million Grant Targets Genetics of Schizophrenia

Once again we have to applaud the efforts of the Stanley family for their support of important research into mental illness. This week the Stanley Medical Research Institute announced a $100M gift to the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard to launch a new research center that will combine the strengths of genomics and chemical biology to advance the understanding and treatment of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

The funding from the Stanley Medical Research Institute, a Maryland-based family philanthropy, will let the Broad Institute gather and analyze thousands of DNA samples from people with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

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. But once that is done, "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."

The philanthropic gift, the largest one ever given to an institution for psychiatric disease research, will support the creation of the Stanley Center for Psychiatric Research, funding research at the center over the next 10 years. Based at the Broad Institute, the Stanley Center will be an interdisciplinary center that will bring together scientists from diverse fields and institutions to pursue collaborative projects. It will build upon the Broad Institute’s current psychiatric disease research, which includes work on schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and major depression and unites leading neuroscience and clinical psychiatry researchers at MIT and Harvard. The gift will allow a major expansion of these programs as well as the initiation of new programs.

In the United States alone, more than 8 million people suffer from schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, and some 17 million are affected each year by major depression. Although the illnesses tend to run in families, suggesting they are influenced by genetics, little is known about their molecular causes. Despite some advances in therapeutics, this dearth of molecular knowledge is a major stumbling block to developing novel, more effective treatments for psychiatric disease.

“Schizophrenia and bipolar disorder are among the most devastating psychiatric diseases in America,” said Michael Knable, executive director of the Stanley Medical Research Institute. “Identifying the biological underpinnings of these illnesses requires diverse scientific skills and a robust spirit of collaboration. The Broad Institute is the ideal place for this important work, because of its collaborative environment, scientific excellence and expertise in genomics and chemical biology.”

“Psychiatric disease is an enormous research challenge, because you can’t study it in cell culture like cancer, or measure it with a blood test like diabetes,” said Eric S. Lander, director of the Broad Institute. “Psychiatric disease may be the most important application for genomics. Genomic tools can help uncover the molecular mechanisms of the disease, which is essential knowledge for developing therapeutics. The Stanley gift is a crucial step toward that goal.”

The new Stanley Center for Psychiatric Research springs from the Broad Institute’s Psychiatric Disease Initiative, which includes MIT neuroscience researchers at the Picower Institute for Learning and Memory, McGovern Institute for Brain Research, Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research and Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, and Harvard neuroscience and clinical psychiatry researchers at the Massachusetts General Hospital and McLean Hospital.

The Stanley Center will be directed by Edward Scolnick, who founded the Broad Institute’s Psychiatric Disease Initiative. A physician-scientist who is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, Scolnick was a researcher at the National Institutes of Health from 1970-1982, where he worked on cancer, and served as president of Merck Research Laboratories from 1982-2003, where he led efforts to develop 29 new drugs and other therapeutics.

“Thanks to the far-reaching vision and unprecedented generosity of the Stanley family, we now have an opportunity to bring powerful new tools to bear on devastating psychiatric diseases,” said Scolnick. “This work would not be possible without the extraordinary caliber and expertise of the MIT and Harvard community. We are grateful for their involvement and eagerly anticipate the scientific fruits of our shared effort.”

Ted Stanley, 75, founder of the Stanley Institute, said, “This is exciting to my wife and me because it gives hope that a partnership with Broad, MIT and Harvard will accelerate our efforts to help people with serious mental illnesses”.

The major projects that will be undertaken at the Stanley Center for Psychiatric Research include systematic surveys of the human genome to identify genes that contribute to schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, and high-throughput chemical screens to uncover novel modes of treatment.

“Unlocking the mysteries of the brain and its associated diseases is one of the most formidable challenges in biomedicine today,” said MIT president Susan Hockfield. “The Stanley Center for Psychiatric Research will help bring neuroscientists together to reach this critical goal.”

“The application of the most advanced genomic tools to study schizophrenia and bipolar disorder gives us our best chance to understand the biological underpinnings of these devastating illnesses,” said Harvard University provost Steven E. Hyman, who previously served as director of the National Institute of Mental Health. “The extraordinary partnership of the Stanley Foundation with the Broad Institute creates new hope for significant progress that can ultimately be translated into much needed new treatments.”

Read More: $100m to bolster psychiatric research - Cambridge institute seeks answers in genes (Boston Globe)

Links to Organization Web Sites:

The Stanley Medical Research Foundation

Broad Institute


On March 8 2007 our son took his own life. Since that time we have been searching for reasons. We have come across schizophrenia. Researching the symptoms, the events in his life are fitting into the schizophrenia catagory. It is a comfort to us knowing your research will help save lives in the future.

Posted by: David Daniels at March 21, 2007 08:51 AM

Post a comment

Please enter this code to enable your comment -
Remember Me?
(you may use HTML tags for style)
* indicates required