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March 6, 2008

Bipolar challenge: $1.5M in donations needed to win challenge grants for U-M Depression Center/Prechter Fund bipolar disorder research

Grants by World Heritage Foundation-Prechter Family Fund and Herrick Foundation aim to spur donations

Ann Arbor, MI – Generous donors are poised to give the University of Michigan Depression Center $1.5 million to fund advanced research on bipolar disorder, through two challenge grants that are designed to encourage smaller donations by individuals – especially those whose families and friends have been affected by bipolar disorder.

Heinz Prechter

If the challenge is met, U-M scientists and their colleagues will have $3 million to pour into research on a disease that traps 5.7 million Americans on a medical roller coaster of manic highs and depressed lows that can be debilitating or even fatal.

Donations of any size will be dedicated exclusively to further the work of the Heinz C. Prechter Bipolar Research Fund. Prechter was an automotive pioneer who fell victim to suicide in 2001 after battling bipolar disorder on and off for decades, even while building a successful business and attracting the admiration of friends and family.

The two challenge grants come from the World Heritage Foundation-Prechter Family Fund, which has pledged up to $1 million, and the Herrick Foundation, which has pledged up to $500,000.

Every dollar received as part of the challenge will fuel the search for the specific genes that make a person vulnerable to developing bipolar disorder, and that cause the disease to run in some families. To make a gift, call 734-998-6143 or visit www.prechterfund.org for a secure online giving form.

The donations will accelerate the pace at which U-M scientists and their colleagues can collect and analyze DNA from 1,000 people with bipolar disorder, and 1,000 others. That effort, called the Prechter Bipolar Genes Project, has been under way since 2005, with its base at U-M in cooperation with scientists at Stanford, Cornell and Johns Hopkins Universities. The Project is unique in the nation and world because it is a longitudinal study, aimed at gathering data over many years.

“To truly understand why bipolar disorder occurs, and how we can treat it more effectively, our researchers must be able to explore every promising avenue and test every hypothesis,” says John Greden, M.D., executive director of the Depression Center. “These two major challenge grants, and the many individual donations they will engender, will make that possible in the promising area of genetics.”

Mrs. Wally Prechter
Mrs. Wally Prechter

Mrs. Waltraud Prechter, who established the research fund and bipolar genes project in memory of her late husband Heinz, says, “The need for answers is urgent, and millions of families share my concern that we find those answers through science as quickly as possible. Good science takes money, and the time has come to understand the genetic underpinnings of this disease. I am truly honored that the Herrick Foundation is joining this effort with their generous matching grant, and I hope that these challenge grants will spur gifts from the public.”

Already, hundreds of individuals have given DNA samples to build the repository of genetic material that the scientific team needs to perform advanced studies of tiny DNA changes that contribute to the disease.

Individuals between the ages of 18 and 65 who have already been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and would like to learn how they might contribute their own DNA to take part in the study may call 1-877 UM-GENES (1-877-864-3637) or e-mail bpresearch@umich.edu. Family members of people with bipolar disorder, and healthy individuals without bipolar disorder, are also able to volunteer.

“We have been incredibly gratified by the number of people who are willing to take part in our studies, and to help us in the hunt for the factors that underlie bipolar disorder,” says Melvin McInnis, M.D., the Thomas B. and Nancy 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 and the Prechter genetic studies.  

He adds, “As it has become more difficult for all biomedical scientists to win funding from the National Institutes of Health in this age of diminishing research budgets, donors like the World Heritage Foundation-Prechter Family Fund and the Herrick Foundation are crucial to our success.” Prechter scientists have established international and national collaborations with other researchers on the vanguard of bipolar research.

An estimated 5.7 million Americans have bipolar disorder. Because of the condition’s genetic links, the loved ones of people with bipolar disorder, especially their children, are at risk of developing the disease themselves. Although no single gene “causes” bipolar disorder, the disease has its roots in complex genetic vulnerabilities that run in families.

By collecting DNA samples from thousands of people with the disease, and comparing it with DNA from people who don’t, the scientists hope to find out what puts someone at risk of bipolar disorder, and how to improve diagnosis and treatment. Each volunteer gives a small blood sample and agrees to be interviewed each year.

The Prechter Genes Project is identifying specific differences within genes that might work together to make a person more likely to develop bipolar disorder -- or more likely to have frequent or severe “manic” and depressed episodes over the course of their life. The scientists are also looking for genes that might make someone with bipolar disorder more likely to have lifelong depression. 

This, in turn, could help lead to tests that could tell doctors which customized medications might work best for each person with bipolar disorder, and keep them balanced and well over the long term. It may also lead to blood tests to help identify which members of a family are most at risk of developing bipolar.

The lack of effective treatment for a substantial number of individuals — 30 to 50 percent of all people with bipolar disorder — is a major reason for the high risk of suicide and suicide attempts among people with the condition, McInnis says. Up to 15 percent of people with bipolar disorder will commit suicide, a tragedy that changes the lives of families, friends and communities forever.

For more about the Prechter Bipolar Research Fund and Genes Project, visit www.prechterfund.org or call Wally Prechter at (734) 675-2200.

To read other press releases about the Prechter Bipolar Genes Project, and about Heinz Prechter, follow these links:

Written by: Kara Gavin

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