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UCSD's Beyster Center Names Chief, Focuses on Translating Research on Mental Health Disorders

By Alex Philippidis

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) – The recently-named head of a San Diego research center focused on mental illness said his laboratory will work with partners to accelerate the translation of research findings into screening and diagnostic tests, and better treatments, for mental health disorders.

Jonathan Sebat, chief of the Beyster Center for Molecular Genomics of Neuropsychiatric Diseases at the University of California, San Diego, told GenomeWeb Daily News the center will carry out whole-genome sequencing in families with autism and schizophrenia, to detect changes in DNA sequence or changes in DNA copy number that confer risk of disease.

The research will continue work that Sebat undertook at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, where he was a founding member of the Stanley Center for Psychiatric Genomics and held a faculty position. While at CSHL in 2007, Sebat teamed up with Michael Wigler to publish the first study that used high-resolution microarray CGH to map submicroscopic copy number variants in autism families.

The study showed that 10 percent of 118 sporadic autism patients showed evidence of chromosomal mutations that were spontaneous, not inherited from their mothers or fathers, and each with a different gene involved. Those CNVs were found to be an underlying factor in autism, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder.

"We started with microarray technology that allowed us to capture mutations in 10 percent of cases. But we expect the 10 percent is just the top of the iceberg in terms of rare variants. Once we have complete genome sequences on patients, our power to identify genetic causes will greatly improve," said Sebat, who also recently joined the UC San Diego Departments of Psychiatry and Cellular & Molecular Medicine as an assistant professor.

UCSD, he said, proved attractive for continuing the research because of its established programs in psychiatry and autism research, as well as the presence nearby of the VA San Diego Healthcare, a major center for psychiatric research.

At the Beyster Center, Sebat leads a group of nine researchers — including a computer scientist and a geneticist that will join in August.

Sebat said the center is working closely with clinical groups and groups in neuroscience at UCSD, and has also developed ongoing collaborations with groups at Rady Children's Hospital, toward future personalized studies of genetics and brain imaging:

The Beyster Center is named for husband-and-wife philanthropists Betty and J. Robert Beyster, who launched the research center with a gift of undisclosed value. That gift, plus grant funding, will sustain the center, according to Sebat.

"Despite years of interest, the cause and cure for schizophrenia is not yet understood. Drugs that help manage the disease are available, but many have negative side effects, and they fall far short of a solution," the couple wrote in a statement explaining their support for the center.