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Mental Health

To speed treatment for the mentally ill, the government should require drug companies to share data.

While no single gene can doom a person to depression or any other mental illness, certain genes do make people more susceptible. Two new projects will further the search for these vulnerability genes. One is being done at the Allen Institute for Brain Science, which plans to gather data to build an atlas of the mouse brain, showing what genes are active in each region. Mouse neurogenomics is expected to identify overlooked genes and guide accurate interpretations of animal results. The second is a program that the National Institute of Mental Health launched to probe the roles that a handful of genes play in schizophrenia. These projects and other ongoing work will yield fresh ideas for treatment, as discussed in the essay “Better Living Through Chemistry,” on page 78 of Acumen, Issue 4.

Scientists must not let their powerful techniques to pursue genetic vulnerabilities cloud the fact that there is more to biology than genes—indeed, more to mental health than what is traditionally thought of as biology. Individual genes are pieces of a larger mosaic, but all of them together still will not make the picture whole. And any insights, however fragmentary, will take more than a decade to reach medicine cabinets. Meanwhile, there are plenty of sufferers and treatments right now.

Matching patients with the best-possible existing therapies could take much less time than creating new drugs, provided the data are available. Some 800 trials are planned or under way for mental disorders. Every patient in a clinical trial, even in a placebo group, provides a wealth of data, including current and past therapies, tissue samples, and behavioral and physical symptoms. This meticulously collected information should be used to evaluate more than a single treatment. Correlating data such as patients´┐Ż genotypes and drug responses would cost a mere fraction of the expense normally required for a new clinical trial. The government has already required industry to share clinical trial data with firms manufacturing generic drugs and for some studies receiving public funds. It should also require industry to share data so that patients can learn what drugs they will tolerate.




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By Invitation

Graham Allison, Ph.D.