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$100M gift to launch research center for psychiatric disease

The Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard has received a $100 million gift to launch a new research center that will combine the strengths of genomics and chemical biology to advance the understanding and treatment of severe mental illnesses.

The philanthropic gift from the Stanley Medical Research Institute, the largest ever given to an institution for psychiatric disease research, will support the creation of the Stanley Center for Psychiatric Research and fund research at the center over the next 10 years.

Based at the Broad Institute, the Stanley Center will bring together scientists from diverse fields and institutions to pursue collaborative projects. It will build upon the Broad Institute's current psychiatric disease research, which includes work on schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and major depression and unites leading neuroscience and clinical psychiatry researchers at MIT and Harvard. The gift will allow a major expansion of these programs as well as the initiation of new programs.

In the United States alone, more than 8 million people suffer from schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, and some 17 million are affected each year by major depression. Although the illnesses tend to run in families, suggesting they are influenced by genetics, little is known about their molecular causes. Despite some advances in therapeutics, this dearth of molecular knowledge is a major stumbling block to developing novel, more effective treatments for psychiatric disease.

"Schizophrenia and bipolar disorder are among the most devastating psychiatric diseases in America," said Michael Knable, executive director of the Stanley Medical Research Institute. "Identifying the biological underpinnings of these illnesses requires diverse scientific skills and a robust spirit of collaboration. The Broad Institute is the ideal place for this important work, because of its collaborative environment, scientific excellence and expertise in genomics and chemical biology."

"Psychiatric disease is an enormous research challenge, because you can't study it in cell culture like cancer, or measure it with a blood test like diabetes," said Eric S. Lander, director of the Broad Institute and an MIT professor of biology. "Psychiatric disease may be the most important application for genomics. Genomic tools can help uncover the molecular mechanisms of the disease, which is essential knowledge for developing therapeutics. The Stanley gift is a crucial step toward that goal."

The new Stanley Center for Psychiatric Research springs from the Broad Institute's Psychiatric Disease Initiative, which includes MIT neuroscience researchers at the Picower Institute for Learning and Memory, McGovern Institute for Brain Research, Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research and Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, and Harvard neuroscience and clinical psychiatry researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital and McLean Hospital.

The Stanley Center will be directed by Edward Scolnick, who founded the Broad Institute's Psychiatric Disease Initiative.

"Thanks to the far-reaching vision and unprecedented generosity of the Stanley family, we now have an opportunity to bring powerful new tools to bear on devastating psychiatric diseases," said Scolnick. "This work would not be possible without the extraordinary caliber and expertise of the MIT and Harvard community. We are grateful for their involvement and eagerly anticipate the scientific fruits of our shared effort."

The major projects that will be undertaken at the Stanley Center for Psychiatric Research include systematic surveys of the human genome to identify genes that contribute to schizophrenia and bipolar disorder and high-throughput chemical screens to uncover novel modes of treatment.

"Unlocking the mysteries of the brain and its associated diseases is one of the most formidable challenges in biomedicine today," said MIT President Susan Hockfield. "The Stanley Center for Psychiatric Research will help bring neuroscientists together to reach this critical goal."

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on March 14, 2007 (download PDF).

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