VCU receives federal grant to study genetic markers that may predict chronic depression

Findings may result in better management of a major public health problem

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Virginia Commonwealth University has received a $3 million grant from the National Institute of Mental Health to study key molecular markers found in DNA that predict chronic depression.

The findings may lead to a more tailored and improved treatment of depression, which affects nearly 15 million American adults in a given year and is the leading cause of disability in the United States for ages 15-44. Symptoms will often subside, but in some patients the disease is chronic.

The Center for Biomarker Research and Personalized Medicine in the VCU School of Pharmacy, in collaboration with the VU University in Amsterdam, will conduct a five-year study to investigate methylation markers in blood, starting with a genome search of approximately 27 million methylation sites. DNA methylation is a process that changes how genes work through chemically modifying DNA. To avoid false discoveries, the most promising findings will then be replicated in independent samples using a different technology.

“It is of great clinical importance to better understand chronic depression, and DNA methylation studies are a very promising new direction,” said Edwin van den Oord, Ph.D., director of the VCU Center for Biomarker Research and Personalized Medicine and principal investigator on the study.

Methylation markers are stable and can be measured cost-effectively in blood, which is relatively easy to collect. These properties are ideal for the eventual successful use of methylation markers in the clinic.

“Our group has invested heavily in this novel technology, and our previous large scale methylation projects have been very successful, so I am therefore very excited about this project and think we will be able to make a difference,” van den Oord said. “The idea is that these markers will help to predict if a patient is likely to have the chronic form of depression. With this information, the treatment plan can be adjusted accordingly to directly benefit the patient.”

The VCU Center for Biomarker Research and Personalized Medicine has been in operation since 2006. The center’s mission is to develop and apply novel methods to identify and use biomarkers that will improve understanding of disease and tailor medication use in patients to enhance efficacy and minimize toxicity.

The project is supported by NIH grant R01MH099110.