University of Exeter part of £13m mental health biomarker study

Researchers from the University of Exeter are involved in a major European £13.3 million funding initiative which aims to unpick the biological reasons underlying social withdrawal. Withdrawing from family and friends is a common symptom of Schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s disease and Major Depressive Disease, and discovering the cause could pave the way for new drug treatments.

Professor Jonathan Mill, Professor of Epigenetics and his team at the University of Exeter Medical School, are part of the PRISM project (Psychiatric Ratings using Intermediate Stratified Markers), a public-private cooperation which unites researchers from European academic centres and major pharmaceutical companies.

The project, supported by the European Innovative Medicines Initiative (IMI), has been launched to seek to uncover the biology behind social withdrawal, one of the earliest indicators of the onset of several common psychiatric and neurological disorders, although it is a symptom that may be caused by very different neurobiological processes.

People with social withdrawal tend to retreat from friends and family, as well as from social networks at their work places. No-one knows the real underlying causes. This lack of understanding of the root biological causes is one of the reasons behind the dramatic slowdown in the development of new drugs to treat neuropsychiatric disorders.

Researchers involved in the project will take a mixed group of patients and measure the brain and behavioural activities using a variety of new and existing techniques, from functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging of the brain and blood tests to behavioural apps on smartphones.

Professor Mill said: “Identifying the biological mechanisms underpinning the response to stress in the brain may have important implications for our understanding of stress-related psychiatric disorders such as anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder.”

The project will simultaneously correlate these activities with levels of social withdrawal, initially targeting Alzheimer’s disease and Schizophrenia, but also looking at Major Depressive Disease. This should allow scientists to understand exactly which biological parameters correlate with which clinical symptoms.

IMI Executive Director Pierre Meulien said: “Brain disorders place an immense burden on patients, their families, and society as a whole. By bringing together leading experts from industry and academia, the PRISM project is well placed to add to our understanding of the underlying causes of brain disorders, and this will help to pave the way for new, effective treatments that patients are waiting for.”

Project coordinator, Professor Dr Martien Kas, of the University Medical Centre Utrecht and University of Groningen, Netherlands added: “Mental health care needs a way of seeing beyond the diagnostic boundaries to the underlying biological causes – we need biomarkers for mental health, in the way that we have blood tests for diabetes.

“If we can use the available techniques to objectively measure and to pull out the causes of social withdrawal, then the project will open a whole new way of understanding the causes and treatment of mental illness. With this ‘deep phenotyping’ of the patients, we will be able to differentiate patients on the basis of distinct biological parameters and relate these to internal biochemistry and genetics. This should allow us to identify specific biological targets for drug action. At the moment, we don’t know what will drop out, but we hope that this new understanding will give us new drug targets, or even allow better targeting of old drugs.”

Concerns in the pharmaceutical industry about the lack of a systematic methodology to develop drugs for mental health led EFPIA (the European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries and Associations) to approach the IMI to investigate the problem. As Dr Hugh Marston (Lilly) the industry project leader of the consortium said:

“This project has grown out of a pharmaceutical industry initiative led by Boehringer Ingelheim (Dr Bernd Sommer) and Lilly.  We now have 22 participant organisations, including 7 pharmaceutical companies each of whom are contributing between €1m to €2m.   Other major participants include the ECNP, several academic departments, a patient body, and five small specialist companies. The whole project is brought together by the EU under the Innovative Medicines Initiative, which also supports the project.  With this truly collaborative effort we stand an excellent chance of demonstrating for the first time that we can differentiate brain disorders based upon measurable biology rather than a classification based on the observed symptoms”.

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