The Broad Institute, a collaborative biomedical research center in Cambridge, Massachusetts, has received a $650 million donation from philanthropist and businessman Ted Stanley to study the biological basis of diseases such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.
The largest donation ever made to psychiatric research, the gift totals nearly six times the current $110 million annual budget for President Barack Obama’s Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative. Stanley has already given Broad $175 million, and the $650 million will be provided as an annual cash flow on the order of tens of millions each year, with the remainder to be given after Stanley’s death. (See other coverage here and here.)
The gift accompanies a paper published online today in Nature from researchers at Broad and worldwide, which identifies more than 100 areas of the human genome associated with schizophrenia, based on samples from almost 37,000 people with schizophrenia and about 113,000 without the disease. Researchers are likely to find hundreds of additional genetic variations associated with the disease as the number of patients sampled grows, says psychiatrist Kenneth Kendler of the Virginia Institute for Psychiatric and Behavioral Genetics in Richmond, a co-author on the study.
Identifying the variants themselves is unlikely to lead directly to new drug targets, Kendler says. Instead, the hope is that researchers at Broad and elsewhere will be able to use those data to reveal clusters of genetic variation, like placing pins on a map, he says. Patterns are already beginning to emerge, showing abnormalities in common biochemical pathways that regulate functions such as synaptic plasticity and immune function, said Eric Lander, president of the Broad Institute, in a press conference this morning. “For the first time, we can start to see the underlying biological basis of the disease.”
Many pharmaceutical companies largely abandoned drug development for psychiatric diseases decades ago because the conditions are considered too difficult to treat, said Steven Hyman, director of the Stanley Center for Psychiatric Research at the Broad Institute. Gifts such as Stanley’s are an important signal to drug companies, young researchers, and federal funders that it is time to reinvest in psychiatric research, he said.
Although effective new drugs based on such research may be decades away, near-term payoffs could include ways of identifying teens at risk of developing schizophrenia early on, or tools that help physicians better manage their patients’ medications, added Steve McCarroll, director of genetics research at Broad.
Genetic research is just one small step toward truly helping people with schizophrenia and other disorders, however, Kendler says. Only half of identical twins whose siblings have schizophrenia develop the disease, making it critical to better understand how known risk factors such as urban environments and complications at birth contribute, he says. Rehabilitation and therapy are also key, he notes. “Medication is not the only thing that is going to work.”