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University, Drug Maker Partner on Suicide Genetics

Map: Risk of suicide by state

Risk of suicide by state. Click on map for full-size image. Source: CDC (University of Utah Health)

8 September 2017. Pharmaceutical company Janssen Research and Development and University of Utah Health in Salt Lake City are studying genetic factors linked to higher suicide risks. Financial and intellectual property aspects of the collaboration were not disclosed.

The initiative aims to build on earlier work by Utah research professor Hilary Coon, a specialist in psychiatry and biomedical informatics, who heads the Utah Suicide Genetics Project and is co-leader of the partnership. That study is looking into genetic variations associated with suicide in more than 3,500 DNA samples from suicide victims in Utah. The samples are linked to data in the Utah Population Database that collects medical, demographic, and genealogical information. In that project, researchers are seeking genetic variations associated with suicide, while controlling for other psychiatric and physical disorders.

According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide took the lives of nearly 43,000 people in the U.S. in 2014, or 13.4 deaths per 100,000 population, making it the 10th leading cause of death. Firearms account for about half of all suicides. According to 2015 data, Utah is one of the top 5 states in suicide rate, at about 23.5 per 100,000.

The joint project will investigate genetic clues in large extended families with unusually high rates of suicide, by finding associations between genetic variations and characteristic behavioral traits. The university and state’s medical examiner’s office say they can mine the database while protecting the privacy of suicide victims and their families by removing names, dates of birth, or other individual identifiers.

The researchers note that suicide and mental illness are often studied together, but many people with mental illness do not die of suicide. Therefore identifying genetic factors could provide ways of predicting which individuals are most at risk and take actions earlier to prevent a tragic outcome.

Coon notes in a university statement that this strategy could lead to new drugs or make existing medications more readily available for people deemed at higher risk of suicide. “We believe this work may help us identify high-risk groups for better, more targeted therapies and interventions to reduce the incidence of suicide.”

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Disclosure: The author owns shares in Johnson & Johnson, parent company of Janssen R&D.

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