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August 7, 2006

Accelerating the hunt for bipolar disorder genes:

U-M & Johns Hopkins team up to expand Prechter Bipolar Genetic Repository and cooperate on research that may improve treatment

DNA samples will be made available to researchers worldwide to speed discovery

ANN ARBOR, MI – For the 5.7 million Americans who have bipolar disorder, the manic “highs” and the deep depressed “lows” they experience are bad enough. But they also face the fact that their loved ones, especially their children, are at risk of developing the disease themselves. Although no single gene “causes” bipolar disorder, the disease has its roots in genetic vulnerabilities that run in families.

Heinz PrechteNow, the search for those genetic underpinnings is accelerating, with a new cooperative effort by scientists at the University of Michigan Depression Center and Johns Hopkins University.

The two universities will combine research efforts on bipolar genetics — and combine their stockpiles of biological samples from bipolar patients and their families. They will then make the entire collection of samples available as a shared resource to researchers anywhere who are searching for clues to bipolar’s inherited traits.

The effort will greatly expand the Prechter Bipolar Genetics Repository, which since 2005 has been used by U-M researchers and colleagues at Stanford University and Cornell University. The Prechter Repository is funded by the U-M’s Heinz C. Prechter Bipolar Research Fund, founded by Waltraud "Wally" Prechter in an ongoing effort to conquer the disease that took her husband's life.

The new effort ultimately aims to improve diagnosis and treatment for bipolar patients and their family members. Specifically, research performed using Prechter Repository’s samples will help scientists understand which genetic variations make people susceptible to developing the disease, and what genetic characteristics tend to correlate with the severity of the disease or response to treatment over time.

In all 1,500 blood and cell samples from 140 families affected by bipolar disorder will be shipped from the Hopkins campus in Baltimore and stored with the hundreds of samples collected in the last year by U-M researchers. The Hopkins repository has been built since the late 1980s, with funding from the National Institute of Mental Health and the Dana Foundation. Now, the U-M team will prepare DNA samples from the Hopkins samples that can be studied at both institutions and others. U-M researchers also will keep collecting samples from additional patients and relatives.

Melvin McInnis“Cooperation means acceleration in genetics research, because the more samples we can study from more families, the faster we can get to definitive answers about the genes involved in bipolar,” says Melvin McInnis, M.D., The Upjohn Woodworth Professor of Bipolar Disorder and Depression in the U-M Medical School Department of Psychiatry, and director of the Depression Center’s psychiatry programs.

“Our treatments for this challenging illness have not improved much over the past 30 years, despite several new medications.  Understanding the genetic underpinnings of disease will become the basis for development of the next generation of medicines to effectively treat patients.  We are in this field because we are dedicated to bringing the science to our clinics.” says Raymond DePaulo, M.D., the Henry Phipps Professor and Director of the Johns Hopkins Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, and psychiatrist-in-chief at the Johns Hopkins Hospital.

James Potash, M.D., MPH, an associate professor at Hopkins and director of its Mood Disorders Research Program, will work closely on the project with U-M researchers — including Haiming Chen, M.D., who recently came to U-M from Hopkins as a research assistant professor.

Waltraud PrechterMrs. Prechter recently visited Johns Hopkins with Dr. McInnis to finalize plans for the combined effort. “I am very excited about the decision of Johns Hopkins to join the Prechter Bipolar Genetics Repository,” she says. “I have great hope that, with these four leading universities working on this project, we will find the breakthrough solutions we are seeking for people who suffer from bipolar illness and ultimately find a cure for this insidious condition.”

In fact, McInnis notes, bipolar genetics research at U-M and other institutions is already bearing fruit. He and his colleagues have used genetic scans to identify a particular region of chromosome 8 that seems to contain areas of major variation between bipolar disorder patients and people without the disease. Now, the combined genetic repository will allow scientists to narrow their search for the genes, and individual nucleotides that lie at the heart of that variation.

Another advantage of both the U-M and Hopkins samples is that they have been and will continue to be collected together with information about the person’s mental health at the time of collection. This will allow scientists to tell which genes correspond with the severity of the condition.

The sharing of the Prechter Repository samples with other researchers will be managed by U-M and Hopkins researchers, who will review proposals for research projects and select those that appear to hold the most promise. A fee structure, like that set up by other genetic repositories in other diseases, will compensate for preparation of samples and other activity.

“We hope that the repository will help scientists anywhere identify the genes that lend susceptibility to bipolar disorder and the genetic variants that are influential during the course of the illness, in conjunction with environmental factors such as life events,” says McInnis.


For more information on the Prechter Bipolar Genetics Repository, and the need for more patients and families to volunteer samples of their blood and DNA, call 1-877 UM-GENES
(1-877-864-3637), or e-mail bpresearch@umich.edu.

About the Heinz C. Prechter Bipolar Research Fund at the U-M Health System:
Since 2001, the Fund has honored the memory of Michigan entrepreneur and business leader Heinz C. Prechter by raising and granting funds for research on the disorder that led to his death by suicide. Manic depression, also known as bipolar disorder, causes brain chemical imbalances that lead to deep depressions, manic episodes and suicidal impulses in millions of Americans. Worldwide, depression is associated with the loss of 850,000 lives every year, according to the World Health Organization.

In an ongoing effort to find the genetic causes and potential cures for bipolar disorder, the Heinz C. Prechter Bipolar Research Fund supports genetic bipolar research at the U-M. The partnership builds on the close ties between the University and the Prechter family; Heinz and Wally Prechter were both early champions of the U-M Depression Center, which was formally approved by the University’s Board of Regents only a few months after Heinz Prechter’s death. The Fund also supports the Prechter Bipolar Research Network, a group of research institutions whose scientists have competed for and won grants to support bipolar research. 

Written by Kara Gavin

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