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Wednesday, March 7, 2007

$100 million to be spent unlocking the genetic mysteries of mental illness

By Carey Goldberg, Globe Staff

It looks to be the largest single gift ever for research into mental illness: The Broad Institute, the genomics powerhouse in Cambridge, announced this evening that it will receive $100 million to figure out the genetics of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

The money comes from the Stanley Medical Research Institute, a family philanthropy based in Maryland.

It will go mainly to gather and analyze thousands of DNA samples from people with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, in hopes of finally figuring out the complex genetics behind the diseases.

That is no easy task. The diseases afflict more than 6 million Americans, and clearly run in families. But the specific genes at work have proven largely elusive. Multiple genes are believed to be involved, and they could vary from patient to patient. Environment, too, plays a role.

But in the last year or so, gene-scanning technology has reached the point that scientists believe they can run studies on a scale large enough to detect the genetic culprits, said Dr. Edward Scolnick, who oversees the Broad's psychiatric research. He wants to gather DNA samples from as many as 10,000 people with each disease, plus 10,000 without.

That DNA then needs to be scanned in its entirety for genes correlated to the disease, and that is where the Broad's expertise comes in.

Its genomic tools have been getting ever faster and cheaper, so that it can now scan a patient's sample for half a million genetic variations at once. In a couple of months, said Eric Lander, the Broad's director, that will be up to a full million.

"If you're looking for a needle in a haystack, and you can sift the whole haystack, you'll find the needle," Lander said.

The Broad is a joint institute of Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Posted by Karen Weintraub at 05:04 PM
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