120 million people worldwide suffer from depression. An EU-funded research project launched recently will help to uncover the genetic factors linked to depression to develop new drug treatments.
The Integrated Project, named NEWMOOD, has received €7.2 million in funding from the EU’s Sixth Research Framework Programme (FP6) and aims to identify genes involved in triggering depression. This will help researchers to develop new drugs over the next five years to treat it and improve understanding of its causes. The drugs are set to revolutionise antidepressant drugs, which have not changed much over the past 30 years. The project, co-ordinated by the University of Manchester (United Kingdom) involves partners from 13 laboratories in 10 European countries including Estonia, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Slovenia and Spain.
“Depression is a widespread issue and represents a serious health problem in Europe. Everybody can feel sad. But depression is a severe and long-term problem where people feel hopeless and their professional and private life is hampered,” says European Research Commissioner Philippe Busquin. “Traditional drugs mainly target brain chemicals, and are only partially effective. By looking into the genetics of depression EU researchers can go to the very roots of the illness, and help prevent and cure it in innovative ways. European scientists working together can make a difference and achieve a quantum leap in the fight against depression”.
Depression, which is marked by symptoms of reduced interest and pleasure, weight and appetite changes, agitation and fatigue, is believed to be caused by genetic and environmental factors. Chronic stress, such as long term illness or bereavement, can trigger depression in those genetically predisposed to the condition. Counselling is often used alongside drug treatment, but the NEWMOOD research hopes to find more effective drug treatments by identifying genes affecting depression in mice and rats, and later in humans.
Currently, most antidepressants work by boosting levels of serotonin in the brain, a chemical that allows nerve cells in the brain to communicate with one another. However, such treatments can take weeks to have an effect and only work in around 50% of patients. It is hoped the new drugs will be more effective and quicker to take effect.
This gene research will help to provide new targets for the drugs and improve understanding of the key causes of depression. Researchers will develop a microchip carrying 800 genes to test which ones are active in healthy and depressed animals and humans. They will test the effects of these depression-related genes by altering their activity in genetically modified mice. Animal depression can be observed in mice by lower than usual interest in sweetened water and a tendency not to struggle as much when suspended from their tails.