Nov. 16, 2001
Volume XXXIV, No. 46


In Memoriam

Of Note


Meadows Foundation grant supports bipolar disorder research

The Meadows Foundation has awarded $345,000 to the Health Science Center to create a new bipolar disorder research center.

The grant enables UTHSC to establish the South Texas Psychiatric Genetics Research Center, where scientists will seek to improve the identification and treatment of patients with bipolar disorder. The award also enables UTHSC to increase the number of participants enrolled in university bipolar research projects from the current total of 4,200 to more than 10,000 during the three-year grant period.

Bipolar disorder, also called manic depression, affects more than 2 million Americans. The condition is a major cause of suicide and is characterized by mood shifts that may disrupt activities of daily living.

Dr. Charles L. Bowden, professor and chairman of psychiatry at the Health Science Center, heads an aggressive research program looking at all aspects of mood and anxiety disorders. "We are at the forefront of testing medications and therapies for bipolar disorder," he said. "By identifying the genes that carry the bipolar trait, we will be able to see how specific gene mutations respond to different therapies."

Harvard-trained Dr. Michael Escamilla, associate professor of psychiatry and director of the new center, has found general locations of two genes that carry bipolar disorder. Both genes are on chromosome 18. His team made the findings in a population isolate in Costa Rica.

"We are moving from the stage of detecting the locations of these genes to identifying the actual genes involved," Dr. Escamilla said. "In an illness as complicated as bipolar disorder, this often means looking at specific genes in a large sample of patients. Our center will focus on using the information gained from the Costa Rican studies to identify genes that predispose persons to developing bipolar disorder in the South Texas population."

Given the large proportion of South Texans who are Hispanic, the center will work closely with investigators engaged in parallel studies in Mexico and Central America. "The genes located in the two regions on chromosome 18 will be sequenced, and a search for mutations that cause the disorder will begin," Dr. Escamilla said.

"Genes are only part of the picture of what causes bipolar disorder, but they are highly significant. Identifying the genes involved also will allow us to better study environmental risk factors that contribute to this illness. The same gene 'mutation' may cause bipolar disorder in one person and produce a creative genius in another. Eventually, we would like to understand much better how that process works and be able to help those carrying these genes to avoid the severe consequences of developing the illness."

DNA, the genetic blueprint in cells, consists of immense sequences of amino acids. The order of these sequences can be determined in the laboratory. Geneticists such as Dr. Escamilla compare DNA from several generations of the same family affected by a disease to find sequences that differ from the general population. In this way, they hope to identify sequences that may be aberrant and disease-related.

"Health Science Center researchers are on the brink of locating and identifying the genes that carry the bipolar mutation," Dr. Bowden said. "The findings will lead to better treatments and understanding of the illness."

UTHSC researchers record more than 86,000 psychiatric outpatient visits per year, according to the department of psychiatry. Among the department's many research projects, it is one of 18 sites for the Systematic Treatment Enhancement Program for Bipolar Disorder, or STEP-BD. As part of STEP-BD, Dr. Bowden and his colleagues are testing several new medications and forms of psychotherapy to assist bipolar disorder patients.