The US National Institutes of Health (NIH) has awarded a $2.1 million "Grand Opportunity" (GO) grant to a team of researchers - led by Prof. Todd Lencz at the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research, New York, and Prof.Ariel Darvasi of the Silberman Institute of Life Sciences at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem - to conduct a study on the genetic basis of schizophrenia..

The team, which also includes Drs. Anil Malhotra and Peter Gregersen of the Feinstein Institute and Dr. David Goldman of the US National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, will use advanced technologies in their groundbreaking research.

As described by the NIH, the GO grant program was designed to support "high impact ideas" that can "accelerate critical breakthroughs" in our understanding of human disease. President Barack Obama personally announced the awards and singled out genetic research as "one of the most exciting areas of research to move forward as a result of this investment."

It has long been known that schizophrenia - a complex brain disease marked by often-frightening hallucinations and delusions - tends to run in families and therefore has a genetic component to its cause. However, scientists have struggled to conclusively identify the genes that contribute to risk for this disease.

The newly funded GO grant builds on prior gene-hunting efforts with several distinctive features. Most notably the sample study group set, unprecedented in its size, consists entirely of 4000 individuals (patients and controls) of Ashkenazi Jewish descent, recruited in Israel by Prof. Darvasi and his colleagues.

"The unique demographic history of the Jewish Ashkenazi population results in a more homogeneous genetic background compared to the general population. This should allow disease-related genetic signals to stand out more clearly in our analyses," said Prof. Darvasi. Additionally, this study will utilize the most advanced genetic technologies, which will permit examination of many more pieces of the genetic code than prior generations of research.

It is hoped that the results of this research will lead to more accurate prediction, treatment and prevention of serious mental illnesses such as schizophrenia.

Jerry Barach
The Hebrew University of Jerusalem

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