If geneticists want to make more progress toward pinpointing psychiatric
genes, they will need to pool their DNA samples. This theme was often
reiterated during the 15th World Congress on Psychiatric Genetics, held in New
York City in October (see Obstacles Hinder Search for Mental Illness
The challenge, essentially, is that a plethora of genes with small
effects—not just one dominant gene with a large effect—seems to
underlie psychiatric illnesses. Or as Hugh Salter, Ph.D., from AstraZeneca
Research and Development stressed, "The largest problem that faces us is
the small effect size for single genes."
Moreover, the major tool that geneticists wield today to pinpoint
psychiatric genes is the genome-wide association study, in which the DNA of
persons afflicted with a particular psychiatric illness is compared with the
DNA of healthy control subjects. Yet to identify small gene effects in such
studies, one may well need to use DNA taken from thousands of subjects,
Francis Collins, M.D., Ph.D., director of the Human Genome Project,
Thus, pooling DNA samples for genome-wide association studies would enhance
geneticists' statistical power to ferret out psychiatric genes.
Some psychiatric geneticists are starting to pool their DNA samples. For
example, Pamela Sklar, M.D., Ph.D., an associate professor of psychiatry at
Harvard Medical School, reported that she and her colleagues have started
putting their DNA material together with DNA material obtained by British
scientists to speed the identification of bipolar disorder genes.
If academic geneticists want to accelerate the unmasking of psychiatric
genes, they may want to share DNA samples with drug-company geneticists as
well, some speakers suggested. For instance, as Bryan Dechairo, Ph.D., head of
neuroscience molecular medicine at Pfizer Global Research and Development,
reported, Pfizer does not lend DNA samples to academic geneticists. But Pfizer
is willing to provide academic geneticists with information about
Such academia-industry DNA sharing may be tough to bring off, however,
several geneticists cautioned. For instance, Lynn DeLisi, M.D., a professor of
psychiatry at New York University and chair of the psychiatric genetics
congress, said that she once shared her DNA samples with a drug company,"
and it ended in a disaster for my career." The company with whom
she had collaborated was bought by another company, and it took her a long
time to get her DNA samples back. Scientists at drug companies are"
terrific," but once the lawyers get involved and draw up
contracts, that is when the trouble starts, she said.
Another reason why academic geneticists and drug-company geneticists may
have trouble sharing DNA material is because they have different missions,
David Porteous, Ph.D., chair of human molecular genetics and medicine at the
University of Edinburgh in Scotland, pointed out. The former want to use the
material to identify psychiatric genes, while the latter want to deploy it to
develop new drugs. ▪