The Broad Institute of MIT & Harvard last week received a $650 million commitment from philanthropist Ted Stanley to support psychiatry research. News of the donation was timed with the release of a flood of new genetic information related to schizophrenia, a mental disorder for which there is a lack of innovative drug treatments.
Stanley and his late wife, Vada, were touched by mental illness roughly 25 years ago when their son was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Although the young man responded to medication and is now a lawyer, Stanley knew that not all people with psychiatric disorders are as lucky. “At that point, my wife and I started funding medical research to get similar outcomes for other families,” he said at a press conference at the Broad Institute to discuss the gift.
The money will be used to pick apart the molecular underpinnings of a variety of mental illnesses. Scientists already are making headway in understanding schizophrenia. Last week, a team of more than 300 scientists, including from the Broad, published a study in Nature of the genomes of 37,000 people with schizophrenia (DOI: 10.1038/nature13595). The group found more than 100 regions of the genome associated with a risk of developing the disorder.
The new genomic clues come at a time when big pharma companies have largely exited neuroscience R&D. “Industry made a—for us tragic but rational—decision that psychiatric disease was simply too hard,” said Steven Hyman, director of the Broad’s Stanley Center for Psychiatric Research.
Poor psychiatry drug targets are one of the biggest problems facing the field, said P. Jeffrey Conn, director of the Vanderbilt Center for Neuroscience Drug Discovery, who was not involved with the research reported in Nature. “In neuroscience, about 70% of our failures are due to lack of efficacy in late-stage development.”
Broad researchers hope the study will help turn “what was a scientifically forbidding and featureless landscape into a landscape that now has toeholds and opportunities and glimmers of hope,” Hyman said.
The genetic knowledge will eventually improve researchers’ ability to make sound drug development decisions, Conn said, “but I do think it has to be stressed that it’s an investment in the future.”