Dr. Linda Brzustowicz, an associate professor of genetics at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, a board certified psychiatrist and an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey (UMDNJ), was selected from more than 35 highly qualified applications for the inaugural Staglin Family Music Festival NARSAD Schizophrenia Research Award.
The Staglin Family, through the National Alliance for Research on Schizophrenia and Depression (NARSAD), the world's largest nongovernmental funding source for mental health research, established the $250,000 award to be made each year to a "rising star" scientist. It will be supported by funds raised by the Music Festival for Mental Health, an annual event at the Staglin Family Vineyard in the Napa Valley that offers music, fine wines and gourmet dining.
Founded in 1995 by Shari and Garen Staglin, the music festival has raised more than $25 million, with 100 percent funneled directly to research. "Our mission, through this festival, is to fund cutting-edge research to find the causes and cures for schizophrenia and other mental illnesses," Shari Staglin said. "We established this new award," added Garen Staglin, "to stimulate potential young scientists to enter the field of schizophrenia research." Despite the increased awareness brought about by the motion picture portrayal of Nobel Laureate John Nash's schizophrenia in "A Beautiful Mind," the conduct of research on this disease is still facing serious challenges in financial support.
"This award is particularly welcome because it comes at a time when federal funding in this area is shrinking, and we are not done understanding the genetics of schizophrenia by a long shot," Brzustowicz said. "Schizophrenia is a debilitating and lifelong illness, with afflicted individuals filling our streets and homeless shelters. It is important to us that the Staglins, through NARSAD, are stepping up to fill some of the funding void."
Researchers generally accept that susceptibility to schizophrenia results from the interaction of a large number of genes, each of which contributes to the manifestation of this mental malady. Brzustowicz said that work is at a point where genes for schizophrenia are being identified, including one with which she is credited. "With continued funding, research could produce significant progress in terms of turning these genetic factors into potential treatments," Brzustowicz said.
"I and all of Linda's colleagues are optimistic that her work on schizophrenia genetics may one day lead to better treatments and reduced morbidity," said Jay Tischfield, Duncan and Nancy MacMillan Professor of Genetics and chair of the Rutgers genetics department, and professor of pediatrics and psychiatry, UMDNJ-Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. "The meticulous quality of her research sets a standard that is not often equaled by others working on the genetics of mental illness."
Brzustowicz hopes to use the Staglin NARSAD grant to support two lines of research, one involving a new statistical analysis developed by a colleague, Veronica Vieland, at the University of Iowa. "This is a new method of analyzing genetic data to more precisely localize the presence of susceptibility genes in the genome," Brzustowicz explained. Vieland has reanalyzed some of Brzustowicz's data from more than 300 people belonging to 24 large Canadian families with a history of schizophrenia. The results have provided new clues to additional areas to look for susceptibility genes which Brzustowicz will now investigate.
The new funding also will enable Brzustowicz's research into a recently described class of genes that functions differently from the standard model. Generally, a gene serves as a template for the production of RNA, which then carries genetic information to manufacture a protein that governs cellular processes. Researchers are now finding that many genes do not make a protein, but rather a micro-RNA, as it is known, that is involved in the regulation of the expression of other genes. Micro-RNAs seem to figure prominently in the expression of genes involved in the central nervous system, Brzustowicz explained.
Ronald Hart, professor of cell biology and neuroscience at Rutgers, has developed a "gene chip" or microarray specifically designed for simultaneously testing the expression of a large number of micro-RNAs. Brzustowicz plans to work with Hart, using his microarray tools to study a series of post-mortem brain samples from individuals with schizophrenia in order to gauge micro-RNA levels, an area of investigation never before pursued.