QIMR Berghofer challenges scientific community to use genetic links to mental health conditions to enhance treatments

Queensland scientists have identified tremendous opportunities to develop better treatments for mental health disorders based on major genetic breakthroughs over the past decade.

Scientists at the QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute are among international collaborations that have identified hundreds of genes linked to a range of mental illnesses, thanks to DNA donated by millions of people and advances in supercomputing technology.

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But statistical geneticist Eske Derks, head of QIMR Berghofer’s translational neurogenomics lab, said she was frustrated that genetic discoveries hadn’t yet translated into improved drug treatments for conditions like anxiety, depression, schizophrenia and anorexia nervosa.

She has called on the international scientific community to usher in a new era of precision psychiatry by harnessing the many “extraordinary genetic discoveries” of the last 10 years to find better mental health treatments.

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‘We have made so much progress in identifying these genes over the last 10 years,’ said Professor Derks.

“Let’s come together and think about how we can translate this information into better treatments. I think that will happen.

“It may take a few years, maybe even 10 years, but I think we will be able to find more effective treatments. We need to prepare as a community for the next decade.”

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“We owe it to the donors”

In a paper published in the prestigious scientific journal Nature Genetics, Professor Derks and his colleagues Jackson Thorp and Zachary Gerring identified translating genetic data into new psychiatric drug discovery as one of 10 key challenges in the field.

QIMR Berghofer Professor Eske Derks, Dr.  Zachary Gerring and graduate student Jackson Thorp sit at a desk, smiling
The researcher Professor Eske Derks, Dr. Zachary Gerring and Jackson Thorp collaborated with Professor Derks on the publication.

“We had an era of genetic discovery and now we are on the cusp of a new era of precision psychiatry that could offer more effective medicines for patients and help clinicians better diagnose and treat these complex conditions,” Professor Derks said.

“The challenges we have identified are not easy to solve, but with a creative, collaborative and coordinated approach to research – and investments that support scientists in this work – we could make this new era a reality.

“We owe it to the people who have generously donated their DNA and to those living with mental illness.”

Professor Derks saw a major opportunity in integrating genetic discoveries with large drug banks to find existing drugs that can be reused to treat mental disorders.