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Genome-wide exploration of schizophrenia links

Mar 12 2015

University of Newcastle molecular biologist Associate Professor Murray Cairns has received $800,000 in funding for a major genetic study of schizophrenia, with the aim of developing better treatments for the complex neurological condition.

Using state-of-the-art technology operated by the Garvan Institute, the study will sequence the entire genome – about 6 billion nucleotides – from 500 individuals in the Australian Schizophrenia Research Bank that is based at the HMRI Building in Newcastle.

Such is the efficiency of the sequencing instrument, it will take less than two weeks to spend the $800,000 provided in the NSW Genomics Collaborative Grant scheme, but the results will be long-lasting.

“Schizophrenia is a devastating disorder that affects a large number of people in society. We need better drugs that can target all the symptoms but have fewer side-effects,” Associate Professor Cairns said.

“We know the condition has a strong genetic component but to trace the composition of that we need to look across the entire genome – there are hundreds, if not thousands, of genes involved.

“We will use this new capability to dig deep into the genome of people with the disorder and identify rare genetic variation, as well as more common variation, to get a comprehensive understanding of the genomic features that affect these individuals.”

Associate Professor Cairns believes the common variants represent only 30 per cent of the genetic burden – the new project is about finding the rare variants that are difficult to identify with conventional techniques.

“As different individuals experience different combinations of these genes, our whole-genome approach will enable us to identify very precisely the genetic burden in different individuals and the associated gene networks and biological functions.

“This will be an unprecedented development in schizophrenia research. It will take many years to complete because we will have collated a tremendous amount of information.

“Ultimately it will provide a framework for personalised medicine to identify the most appropriate interventions tailored to the individual and the specific characteristics or experience with the syndrome.

“Currently the anti-psychotic drugs only focus on a particular type of neurochemistry in the brain but there is plenty of scope for other areas. This new sequencing technology will have a profound effect on the potential of future medicine.”

Associate Professor Cairns was one of four recipients from 66 applicants for the 2014/15 NSW Genomics Collaborative Grants funding.

* Associate Professor Murray Cairns from the University of Newcastle is a Principal Research Fellow for the Schizophrenia Research Institute. He researches in conjunction with HMRI’s Brain and Mental Health research program. HMRI is a partnership between the University of Newcastle, Hunter New England Health and the community.