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UCLA launches ambitious long-term depression initiative

Are you open with your family and friends about depression?
ryan melaugh via Flickr Creative Commons
Are you open with your family and friends about depression?

UCLA is launching an ambitious, decades-long initiative designed to more effectively study, diagnose and treat depression.

The scientists organizing the Depression Grand Challenge hope to conduct a large-scale genetic study that will aim to uncover the biological causes of depression. Researchers would then use the findings to develop new treatments.

UCLA estimates the Grand Challenge will cost $525 million in the first 10 years of its planned 35-year duration. The university has raised a tiny fraction of that so far, according to a spokeswoman.

For the genetic study, researchers plan to recruit more than 100,000 people from the UCLA health system, along with others associated with the school, including students, faculty, staff and alumni. It would be the largest-ever study of its kind for a single disorder, according to the university. 

The study will be designed to help researchers identify which specific molecules in the brain or elsewhere in the body contribute to depression, hopefully providing clues to new, more targeted treatments.

Doctors are already beginning to pinpoint molecular abnormalities in the search for treatments for other diseases, like cancer, says Dr. Nelson Freimer, director of the Depression Grand Challenge.

But the field of depression lags behind, he says. That’s partially because the brain is the most complicated organ in the body, and because the stigma surrounding depression has stymied research into the disease, he says.

"At the moment, for us to provide a treatment for someone, we say that it's like throwing a dart at a dartboard blindfolded," says Freimer, who's also the director of UCLA's Center for Neurobehavioral Genetics. "You hope that it sticks, but you really don't have any precision as to how you match a treatment to someone's particular illness."

"As we really start learning about what are the biological processes that underpin illness in different people, which we will learn from this large genetic study, we'll then be able to target the treatments in a way that we can't possibly do now," he says.

The Grand Challenge will also include the development of an innovative treatment center, which will draw on the initiative's groundbreaking research.

Right now, "we don't know enough about the causes of depression to design more effective treatments," says Jonathan Flint, a world-renowned expert on the genetics of depression who will serve as the initiative's lead geneticist. "If we get to the point where we can identify causes, we'll understand better how to design treatments."

A major goal of the project is to ensure that study participants benefit from any advancements in treatment.

"We feel that we have an obligation to the many thousands of people who are going to participate in this project, that if they both need and want treatment, that we find a way to provide it for them," says Freimer.

This is UCLA's second Grand Challenge. The school launched Sustainable L.A. in 2013, with the goal of developing a blueprint to transition the county to 100 percent renewable energy, 100 percent locally sourced water and enhanced ecosystem health by 2050.