A word from our Chair, several in fact

In 2005, the New Oxford American Dictionary named “podcast” its word of the year. At the time a podcast was something many had heard of but not that many actually tuned in to. My how times have changed. Now there are some two million podcasts to chose from, at least according to the New York Times, and who am I to question them.

Yesterday, in the same New York Times, TV writer Margaret Lyons, wrote about how the pandemic helped turn her from TV to podcasts: “Much in the way I grew to prefer an old-fashioned phone call to a video chat, podcasts, not television, became my go-to medium in quarantine. With their shorter lead times and intimate production values, they felt more immediate and more relevant than ever before.”

I mention this because an old colleague of ours at CIRM, Neil Littman, has just launched his own podcast and the first guest on it was Jonathan Thomas, Chair of the CIRM Board. Their conversation ranged from CIRM’s past to the future of the regenerative field as a whole, with a few interesting diversions along the way. It’s fun listening. And as Margaret Lyons said it might be more immediate and more relevant than ever before.

Charting a course for the future

A new home for stem cell research?

Have you ever been at a party where someone says “hey, I’ve got a good idea” and then before you know it everyone in the room is adding to it with ideas and suggestions of their own and suddenly you find yourself with 27 pages of notes, all of them really great ideas. No, me neither. At least, not until yesterday when we held the first meeting of our Scientific Strategy Advisory Panel.

This is a group that was set up as part of Proposition 14, the ballot initiative that refunded CIRM last November (thanks again everyone who voted for that). The idea was to create a panel of world class scientists and regulatory experts to help guide and advise our Board on how to advance our mission. It’s a pretty impressive group too. You can see who is on the SSAP here.  

The meeting involved some CIRM grantees talking a little about their work but mostly highlighting problems or obstacles they considered key issues for the future of the field as a whole. And that’s where the ideas and suggestions really started flowing hard and fast.

It started out innocently enough with Dr. Amander Clark of UCLA talking about some of the needs for Discovery or basic research. She advocated for a consortium approach (this quickly became a theme for many other experts) with researchers collaborating and sharing data and findings to help move the field along.

She also called for greater diversity in research, including collecting diverse cell samples at the basic research level, so that if a program advanced to later stages the findings would be relevant to a wide cross section of society rather than just a narrow group.

Dr. Clark also said that as well as supporting research into neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, there needed to be a greater emphasis on neurological conditions such as autism, bipolar disorder and other mental health problems.

(CIRM is already committed to both increasing diversity at all levels of research and expanding mental health research so this was welcome confirmation we are on the right track).

Dr. Mike McCun called for CIRM to take a leadership role in funding fetal tissue research, things the federal government can’t or won’t support, saying this could really help in developing an understanding of prenatal diseases.

Dr. Christine Mummery, President of ISSCR, advocated for support for early embryo research to deepen our understanding of early human development and also help with issues of infertility.

Then the ideas started coming really fast:

  • There’s a need for knowledge networks to share information in real-time not months later after results are published.
  • We need standardization across the field to make it easier to compare study results.
  • We need automation to reduce inconsistency in things like feeding and growing cells, manufacturing cells etc.
  • Equitable access to CRISPR gene-editing treatments, particularly for underserved communities and for rare diseases where big pharmaceutical companies are less likely to invest the money needed to develop a treatment.
  • Do a better job of developing combination therapies – involving stem cells and more traditional medications.

One idea that seemed to generate a lot of enthusiasm – perhaps as much due to the name that Patrik Brundin of the Van Andel Institute gave it – was the creation of a CIRM Hotel California, a place where researchers could go to learn new techniques, to share ideas, to collaborate and maybe take a nice cold drink by the pool (OK, I just made that last bit up to see if you were paying attention).

The meeting was remarkable not just for the flood of ideas, but also for its sense of collegiality.  Peter Marks, the director of the Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research (FDA-CBER) captured that sense perfectly when he said the point of everyone working together, collaborating, sharing information and data, is to get these projects over the finish line. The more we work together, the more we will succeed.

Unlocking a key behind why our bones get weaker as we age

Magnified image of a bone with osteoporosis. Photo Courtesy Sciencephoto.com

Getting older brings with it a mixed bag of items. If you are lucky you can get wiser. If you are not so lucky you can get osteoporosis. But while scientists don’t know how to make you wiser, they have gained some new insights into what makes bones weak and so they might be able to help with the osteoporosis.

Around 200 million people worldwide suffer from osteoporosis, a disease that causes bones to become so brittle that in extreme cases even coughing can lead to a fracture.

Scientists have known for some time that the cells that form the building blocks of our skeletons are found in the bone marrow. They are called mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs) and they have the ability to turn into a number of different kinds of cells, including bone or fat. The keys to deciding which direction the MSCs take are things called epigenetic factors, these basically control which genes are switched on or off and in what order. Now researchers from the UCLA School of Dentistry have identified an enzyme that plays a critical role in that process.

The team found that when the enzyme KDM4B is missing in MSCs those cells are more likely to become fat cells rather than bone cells. Over time that leads to weaker bones and more fractures.

In a news release Dr. Cun-Yu Wang, the lead researcher, said: “We know that bone loss comes with age, but the mechanisms behind extreme cases such as osteoporosis have, up until recently, been very vague.”

To see if they were on the right track the team created a mouse model that lacked KDM4B. Just as they predicted the MSCs in the mouse created more fat than bone, leading to weaker skeletons.

They also looked at mice who were placed on a high fat diet – something known to increase bone loss and weaker bones in people – and found that the diet seemed to reduce KDM4B which in turn produced weaker bones.

In the news release Dr. Paul Krebsbach, Dean of the UCLA School of Dentistry, said the implications for the research are enormous. “The work of Dr. Wang, his lab members and collaborators provides new molecular insight into the changes associated with skeletal aging. These findings are an important step towards what may lead to more effective treatment for the millions of people who suffer from bone loss and osteoporosis.”

The study is published in the journal Cell Stem Cell.

Tipping our hat to the good guys (& gals)

A search on Google using the term “stem cell blogs” quickly produces a host of sites offering treatments for everything from ankle, hip and knee problems, to Parkinson’s disease and asthma. Amazingly the therapies for those very different conditions all use the same kind of cells produced in the same way. It’s like magic. Sadly, it’s magic that is less hocus pocus and more bogus bogus.

The good news is there are blogs out there (besides us, of course) that do offer good, accurate, reliable information about stem cells. The people behind them are not in this to make a quick buck selling snake oil. They are in this to educate, inform, engage and enlighten people about what stem cells can, and cannot do.

So, here’s some of our favorites.

The Niche

This blog has just undergone a face lift and is now as colorful and easy to read as it is informative. It bills itself as the longest running stem cell blog around. It’s run by UC Davis stem cell biologist Dr. Paul Knoepfler – full disclosure, we have funded some of Paul’s work – and it’s a constant source of amazement to me how Paul manages to run a busy research lab and post regular updates on his blog.

The power of The Niche is that it’s easy for non-science folk – like me – to read and understand without having to do a deep dive into Google search or Wikipedia. It’s well written, informative and often very witty. If you are looking for a good website to check whether some news about stem cells is real or suspect, this is a great place to start.

Stem Cell Battles

This site is run by another old friend of CIRM’s, Don Reed. Don has written extensively about stem cell research in general, and CIRM in particular. His motivation to do this work is clear. Don says he’s not a doctor or scientist, he’s something much simpler:

“No. I am just a father fighting for his paralyzed son, and the only way to fix him is to advance cures for everyone. Also, my mother died of breast cancer, my sister from leukemia, and I myself am a prostate cancer survivor. So, I have some very personal reasons to support the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine and to want state funding for stem cell and other regenerative medicine research to continue in California!”

The power of Don’s writing is that he always tells human stories, real tales about real people. He makes everything he does accessible, memorable and often very funny. If I’m looking for ways to explain something complex and translate it into everyday English, I’ll often look at Don’s work, he knows how to talk to people about the science without having their eyes cloud over.

A Closer Look at Stem Cells

This is published by the International Society for Stem Cell Research (ISSCR), the leading professional organization for stem cell scientists. You might expect a blog from such a science-focused organization to be heavy going for the ordinary person, but you’d be wrong.

A Closer Look at Stem Cells is specifically designed for people who want to learn more about stem cells but don’t have the time to get a PhD. They have sections explaining what stem cells are, what they can and can’t do, even a glossary explaining different terms used in the field (I used to think the Islets of Langerhans were small islands off the coast of Germany till I went to this site).

One of the best, and most important, parts of the site is the section on clinical trials, helping people understand what’s involved in these trials and the kinds of things you need to consider before signing up for one.

Signals

Of course, the US doesn’t have a monopoly on stem cell research and that’s reflected in the next two choices. One is the Signals Blog from our friends to the north in Canada. This is an easy-to-read site that describes itself as the “Insiders perspective on the world of stem cells and regenerative medicine.” The ‘Categories ‘dropdown menu allows you to choose what you want to read, and it gives you lots of options from the latest news to a special section for patients, even a section on ethical and legal issues. 

EuroStemCell

As you may have guessed from the title this is by our chums across the pond in Europe. They lay out their mission on page one saying they want to help people make sense of stem cells:

“As a network of scientists and academics, we provide independent, expert-reviewed information and road-tested educational resources on stem cells and their impact on society. We also work with people affected by conditions, educators, regulators, media, healthcare professionals and policymakers to foster engagement and develop material that meets their needs.”

True to their word they have great information on the latest research, broken down by different types of disease, different types of stem cell etc. And like CIRM they also have some great educational resources for teachers to use in the classroom.

De-stressing stem cells and the Bonnie & Clyde of stem cells

Dr. John Cashman

The cells in our body are constantly signalling with each other, it’s a critical process by which cells communicate not just with other cells but also with elements within themselves. One of the most important signalling pathways is called Wnt. This plays a key role in early embryonic and later development. But when Wnt signalling goes wrong, it can also help spur the growth of cancer.

Researchers at the Human BioMolecular Research Institute (HBRI) and Stanford University, have reported on a compound that can trigger a cascade of events that create stress and ultimately impact Wnt’s ability to control the ability of cells to repair themselves.

In a news release Dr. Mark Mercola, a co-author of a CIRM-funded study – published in the journal Cell Chemical Biology – says this is important: “because it explains why stressed cells cannot regenerate and heal tissue damage. By blocking the ability to respond to Wnt signaling, cellular stress prevents cells from migrating, replicating and differentiating.”

The researchers discovered a compound PAWI-2 that shows promise in blocking the compound that causes this cascade of problems. Co-author Dr. John Cashman says PAWI-2 could lead to treatments in a wide variety of cancers such as pancreatic, breast, prostate and colon cancer.

“As anti-cancer PAWI-2 drug development progresses, we expect PAWI-2 to be less toxic than current therapeutics for pancreatic cancer, and patients will benefit from improved safety, less side effects and possibly with significant cost-savings.”

Dr. Catriona Jamieson: Photo courtesy Moores Cancer Center, UCSD

Speaking of cancer….

Stem cells have many admirable qualities. However, one of their less admirable ones is their ability to occasionally turn into cancer stem cells. Like regular stem cells these have the ability to renew and replicate themselves over time, but as cancer stem cells they use that ability to help fuel the growth and spread of cancer in the body. Now, researchers at U.C. San Diego are trying to better understand how those regular stem cells become cancer stem cells, so they can stop that process.

In a CIRM-funded study Dr. Catriona Jamieson and her team identified two molecules, APOBEC3C and ADAR1, that play a key role in this process.

In a news release Jamieson said: “APOBEC3C and ADAR1 are like the Bonnie and Clyde of pre-cancer stem cells — they drive the cells into malignancy.”

So they studied blood samples from 54 patients with leukemia and 24 without. They found that in response to inflammation, APOBEC3C promotes the rapid production of pre-leukemia stem cells. That in turn enables ADAR1 to go to work, interfering with gene expression in a way that helps those pre-leukemia stem cells turn into leukemia stem cells.

They also found when they blocked the action of ADAR1 or silenced the gene in patient cells in the laboratory, they were able to stop the formation of leukemia stem cells.

The study is published in the journal Cell Reports.

Month of CIRM: Making sure stem cell therapies don’t get lost in Translation

All this month we are using our blog and social media to highlight a new chapter in CIRM’s life, thanks to the voters approving Proposition 14. We are looking back at what we have done since we were created in 2004, and also looking forward to the future. Today we feature a blog written by two of our fabulous Discovery and Translation team Science Officers, Dr. Kent Fitzgerald and Dr. Ross Okamura.

Dr. Ross Okamura

If you believe that you can know a person by their deeds, the partnership opportunities offered by CIRM illustrate what we, as an agency, believe is the most effective way to deliver on our mission statement, accelerating regenerative medicine treatments to patients with unmet medical needs.

Dr. Kent Fitzgerald

 In our past, we have offered awards covering basic biology projects which in turn provided the foundation to produce promising therapies  to ease human suffering.  But those are only the first steps in an elaborate process.

In order to bring these potential therapies to the clinic, selected drug candidates must next go through a set of activities designed to prepare them for review by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). For cell therapies, the first formal review is often the Pre- Investigational New Drug Application Consultation or pre-IND.  This stage of drug development is commonly referred to as Translational, bridging the gap between our Discovery or early stage research and Clinical Trial programs.

One of our goals at CIRM is to prepare Translational projects we fund for that  pre-IND meeting with the FDA, to help them gather data that support the hope this approach will be both safe and effective in patients.  Holding this meeting with the FDA is the first step in the often lengthy process of conducting FDA regulated clinical trials and hopefully bringing an approved therapy to patients.

What type of work is required for a promising candidate to move from the Discovery stage into FDA regulated development?  To address the needs of Translational science, CIRM offers the Translational Research Project funding opportunity.  Activities that CIRM supports at the Translational stage include:

  • Process Development to allow manufacturing of the candidate therapy under Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP). This is to show that they can manufacture  at a large enough scale to treat patients.
  • Assay development and qualification of measurements to determine whether the drug is being manufactured safely while retaining its curative properties.
  • Studies to determine the optimal dose and the best way to deliver that dose.
  • Pilot safety studies looking how the patient might respond after treatment with the drug.
  • The development of a clinical plan indicating under what rules and conditions the drug might be prescribed to a patient. 

These, and other activities supported under our Translational funding program, all help to inform the FDA when they consider what pivotal studies they will require prior to approving an Investigational New Drug (IND) application, the next step in the regulatory approval process.

Since CIRM first offered programs specifically aimed at addressing the Translational stage of therapeutic candidates we have made 41 awards totaling approximately $150 million in funding.  To date, 13 have successfully completed and achieved their program goals, while 19 others are still actively working towards meeting their objective.  Additionally, three (treating Spina Bifida, Osteonecrosis, and Sickle Cell Disease) of the 13 programs have gone on to receive further CIRM support through our Clinical Stage programs.

During our time administering these awards, CIRM has actively partnered with our grantees to navigate what is required to bring a therapy from the bench to the bedside.  CIRM operationalizes this by setting milestones that provide clear definitions of success, specific goals the researchers have to meet to advance the project and also by providing resources for a dedicated project manager to help ensure the project can keep the big picture in mind while executing on their scientific progress. 

Throughout all this we partner with the researchers to support them in every possible way. For example, CIRM provides the project teams with Translational Advisory Panels (TAPs, modeled after the CIRM’s Clinical Advisory Panels) which bring in outside subject matter experts as well as patient advocates to help provide additional scientific, regulatory and clinical expertise to guide the development of the program at no additional cost to the grantees.  One of the enduring benefits that we hope to provide to researchers and organizations is a practical mastery of translational drug development so that they may continue to advance new and exciting therapies to all patients.

Through CIRM’s strong and continued support of this difficult stage of development, CIRM has developed an internal practical expertise in advancing projects through Translation.  We employ our experience to guide our awardees so they can avoid common pitfalls in the development of cell and gene therapies. The end goal is simple, helping to accelerate their path to the clinic and fulfilling the mission of CIRM that has been twice given to us by the voters of California, bringing treatments to patients suffering from unmet medical needs.

How a CIRM scholar helped create a life-saving COVID vaccine

Dr. Derrick Rossi might be the most famous man whose name you don’t recognize. Dr. Rossi is the co-founder of Moderna. Yes, that Moderna. The COVID-19 vaccine Moderna. The vaccine that in clinical trials proved to be around 95 percent effective against the coronavirus.

Dr. Rossi also has another claim to fame. He is a former CIRM scholar. He did some of his early research, with our support, in the lab of Stanford’s Dr. Irv Weissman.

So how do you go from a lowly post doc doing research in what, at the time, was considered a rather obscure scientific field, to creating a company that has become the focus of the hopes of millions of people around the world?  Well, join us on Wednesday, January 27th at 9am (PST) to find out.

CIRM’s President and CEO, Dr. Maria Millan, will hold a live conversation with Dr. Rossi and we want you to be part of it. You can join us to listen in, and even post questions for Dr. Rossi to answer. Think of the name dropping credentials you’ll get when say to your friends; “Well, I asked Dr. Rossi about that and he told me…..”

Being part of the conversation is as simple as clicking on this link:

After registering, you will receive a confirmation email containing information about joining the webinar.

We look forward to seeing you there.

Month of CIRM: Reviewing Review

Dr. Gil Sambrano, Vice President Portfolio & Review

All this month we are using our blog and social media to highlight a new chapter in CIRM’s life, thanks to the voters approving Proposition 14. We are looking back at what we have done since we were created in 2004, and also looking forward to the future. Today we take a look at our Review team.

Many people who have to drive every day don’t really think about what’s going on under the hood of their car. As long as the engine works and gets them from A to B, they’re happy. I think the same is true about CIRM’s Review team. Many people don’t really think about all the moving parts that go into reviewing a promising new stem cell therapy.

But that’s a shame, because they are really missing out on watching a truly impressive engine at work.

Just consider the simple fact that since CIRM started about 4,000 companies, groups and individuals have applied to us for funding. Just take a moment to consider that number. Four thousand. Then consider that at no time have there been more than 5 people working in the review team. That’s right. Just 5 people. And more recently there have been substantially fewer. That’s a lot of projects and not a lot of people to review them. So how do they do it? Easy. They’re brilliant.

First, as applications come in they are scrutinized to make sure they meet specific eligibility requirements; do they involve stem cells, is the application complete, is it the right stage of research, is the budget they are proposing appropriate for the work they want to do etc. If they pass that initial appraisal, they then move on to the second round, the Grants Working Group or GWG.

The GWG consists of independent scientific experts from all over the US, all over the world in fact. However, none are from California because we want to ensure there are no possible conflicts of interest. When I say experts, I do mean experts. These are among the top in their field and are highly sought after to do reviews with the National Institutes of Health etc.

Mark Noble, PhD, the Director of the Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine Institute at the University of Rochester, is a long-time member of the GWG. He says it’s a unique group of people:

“It’s a wonderful scientific education because you come to these meetings and someone is putting in a grant on diabetes and someone’s putting in a  grant on repairing the damage to the heart or spinal cord injury or they have a device that will allow you to transplant cells better and there are people  in the room that are able to talk knowledgeably about each of these areas and understand how this plays into medicine and how it might work in terms of actual financial development and how it might work in the corporate sphere and how it fits in to unmet medical needs . I don’t know of any comparable review panels like this that have such a broad remit and bring together such a breadth of expertise which means that every review panel you come to you are getting a scientific education on all these different areas, which is great.”

The GWG reviews the projects for scientific merit: does the proposal seem plausible, does the team proposing it have the experience and expertise to do the work etc. The reviewers put in a lot of work ahead of time, not just reviewing the application, but looking at previous studies to see if the new application has evidence to support what this team hope to do, to compare it to other efforts in the same field. There are disagreements, but also a huge amount of respect for each other.

Once the GWG makes its recommendations on which projects to fund and which ones not to, the applications move to the CIRM Board, which has the final say on all funding decisions. The Board is given detailed summaries of each project, along with the recommendations of the GWG and our own CIRM Review team. But the Board is not told the identity of any of the applicants, those are kept secret to avoid even the appearance of any conflict of interest.

The Board is not required to follow the recommendations of the GWG, though they usually do. But the Board is also able to fund projects that the GWG didn’t place in the top tier of applications. They have done this on several occasions, often when the application targeted a disease or disorder that wasn’t currently part of the agency’s portfolio.

So that’s how Review works. The team, led by Dr. Gil Sambrano, does extraordinary work with little fanfare or fuss. But without them CIRM would be a far less effective agency.

The passage of Proposition 14 means we now have a chance to resume full funding of research, which means our Review team is going to be busier than ever. They have already started making changes to the application requirements. To help let researchers know what those changes are we are holding a Zoom webinar tomorrow, Thursday, at noon PST. If you would like to watch you can find it on our YouTube channel. And if you have questions you would like to ask send them to info@cirm.ca.gov

A Month of CIRM: Where we’ve been, where we’re going

All this month we are using our blog and social media to highlight a new chapter in CIRM’s life, thanks to the voters approving Proposition 14. We are looking back at what we have done since we were created in 2004, and also looking forward to the future. We kick off this event with a letter from our the Chair of our Board, Jonathan Thomas.

When voters approved Proposition 14 last November, they gave the Stem Cell Agency a new lease on life and a chance to finish the work we began with the approval of Proposition 71 in 2004. It’s a great honor and privilege. It’s also a great responsibility. But I think looking back at what we have achieved over the last 16 years shows we are well positioned to seize the moment and take CIRM and regenerative medicine to the next level and beyond.

When we started, we were told that if we managed to get one project into a clinical trial by the time our money ran out we would have done a good job. As of this moment we have 68 clinical trials that we have funded plus another 31 projects in clinical trials where we helped fund crucial early stage research. That inexorable march to therapies and cures will resume when we take up our first round of Clinical applications under Prop 14 in March.

But while clinical stage projects are the end game, where we see if therapies really work and are safe in people, there’s so much more that we have achieved since we were created. We have invested $900 million in  basic research, creating a pipeline of the most promising stem cell research programs, as well as investing heavily on so-called “translational” projects, which move projects from basic science to where they’re ready to apply to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to begin clinical trials.

We have funded more than 1,000 projects, with each one giving us valuable information to help advance the science. Our funding has helped attract some of the best stem cell scientists in the world to California and, because we only fund research in California, it has persuaded many companies to either move here or open offices here to be eligible for our support. We have helped create the Alpha Stem Cell Clinics, a network of leading medical centers around the state that have the experience and expertise to deliver stem cell therapies to patients. All of those have made California a global center in the field.

That result is producing big benefits for the state. An independent Economic Impact Analysis reported that by the end of 2018 we had already helped generate an extra $10.7 billion in new sales revenue and taxes for California, hundreds of millions more in federal taxes and created more than 56,000 new jobs.

As if that wasn’t enough, we have also:

  • Helped develop the largest iPSC research bank in the world.
  • Created the CIRM Center of Excellence in Stem Cell Genomics to accelerate fundamental understanding of human biology and disease mechanisms.
  • Helped fund the construction of 12 world class stem cell institutes throughout the state.
  • Reached a unique partnership with the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institutes to find a cure for sickle cell disease.
  • Used our support for stem cell research to leverage an additional $12 billion in private funding for the field.
  • Enrolled more than 2700 patients in CIRM funded clinical trials

In many ways our work is just beginning. We have laid the groundwork, helped enable an extraordinary community of researchers and dramatically accelerated the field. Now we want to get those therapies (and many more) over the finish line and get them approved by the FDA so they can become available to many more people around the state, the country and the world.

We also know that we have to make these therapies available to all people, regardless of their background and ability to pay. We have to ensure that underserved communities, who were often left out of research in the past, are an integral part of this work and are included in every aspect of that research, particularly clinical trials. That’s why we now require anyone applying to us for funding to commit to engaging with underserved communities and to have a written plan to show how they are going to do that.

Over the coming month, you will hear more about some of the remarkable things we have managed to achieve so far and get a better sense of what we hope to do in the future. We know there will be challenges ahead and that not everything we do or support will work. But we also know that with the team we have built at CIRM, the brilliant research community in California and the passion and drive of the patient advocate community we will live up to the responsibility the people of California placed in us when they approved Proposition 14.

Stem cell research reveals path to schizophrenia

3d illustration of brain nerve cells – Photo courtesy Science Photo

If you don’t know what’s causing a problem it’s hard to come up with a good way to fix it. Mental health is the perfect example. With a physical illness you can see what the problem is, through blood tests or x-rays, and develop a plan to tackle it. But with the brain, that’s a lot harder. You can’t autopsy a brain while someone is alive, they tend to object, so you often only see the results of a neurological illness when they’re dead.

And, says Consuelo Walss-Bass, PhD, a researcher at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth), with mental illness it’s even more complicated.

“Mental health research has lagged behind because we don’t know what is happening biologically. We are diagnosing people based on what they are telling us. Even postmortem, the brain tissue in mental health disorders looks perfectly fine. In Alzheimer’s disease, you can see a difference compared to controls. But not in psychiatric disorders.”

So Wals-Bass and her team came up with a way to see what was going on inside the brain of someone with schizophrenia, in real time, to try and understand what puts someone at increased risk of the disorder.

In the study, published in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology, the researchers took blood samples from a family with a high incidence of schizophrenia. Then, using the iPSC method, they turned those cells into brain neurons and compared them to the neurons of individuals with no family history of schizophrenia. In effect, they did a virtual brain biopsy.

By doing this they were able to identify five genes that had previously been linked to a potential higher risk of schizophrenia and then narrow that down further, highlighting one gene called SGK1 which blocked an important signalling pathway in the brain.

In a news release, Walss-Bass says this findings could have important implications in treating patients.

“There is a new antipsychotic that just received approval from the Food and Drug Administration that directly targets the pathway we identified as dysregulated in neurons from the patients, and several other antipsychotics also target this pathway. This could help pinpoint who may respond better to treatments.”

Finding the right treatment for individual patients is essential in helping them keep their condition under control. A study in the medical journal Lancet estimated that six months after first being prescribed common antipsychotic medication, as many as 50% of patients are either taking the drugs haphazardly or not at all. That’s because they often come with unpleasant side effects such as weight gain, drowsiness and a kind of restless anxiety.

By identifying people who have specific gene pathways linked to schizophrenia could help us better tailor medications to those who will benefit most by them.