Philanthropist Donates $650 Million for Psychiatric Research

An artist's image shows a stormy human mind.
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A Los Angeles philanthropist is donating $650 million to improve understanding of the genetic and molecular causes of schizophrenia and other psychiatric illnesses.

Ted Stanley, a businessman who made his fortune running MBI, a Connecticut company that markets and sells collectibles,donated most of his personal wealthto the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, officials announcedtoday (July 22).

The donation is the largest ever in psychiatric research, and among the largest contributions to scientific research in general, Eric Lander, president and founding director of the Broad Institute, said during an event this morning that was webcast live online. [Top 10 Controversial Psychiatric Disorders]

"Mental illness is poised to jump into the zone of real progress," Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, said in a video statement.

The donation coincides with the release of a new study, published today in the journal Nature, that identifies more than 100 genes linked to schizophrenia. The psychiatric disorder, which causes hallucinations, paranoia and a breakdown of thought processes, affects one out of 100 Americans, according to the NIH's National Institute of Mental Health. The illness usually strikes people in their teens and early 20s, and carries an enormous social and economic cost, experts say.

Few treatments for schizophrenia exist, and existing therapies treat only one of its symptoms, psychosis. Scientists haven't identified any new drug targets for the disorder since the 1950s, when one was found by chance. Pharmaceutical companies have largely abandoned the search for new drugs because finding drug targets is so difficult, but recent genetic discoveries could bring renewed attention to these diseases, scientists say.

Stanley and his late wife, Vada Stanley, have been funding research on schizophrenia and bipolar disorder at the Broad Institute since 2004. Their son, Jonathan, developed severe bipolar disorder with psychotic tendencies while he was in college. Jonathan was able to overcome his disorder by taking lithium. The Stanleys went on to fund research into treatments that could be as successful as lithium was for Jonathan.

"Mental illness had picked a fight with the wrong man," Jonathan Stanley said via video chat during today's announcement.

In 2007, the Stanleys launched the Stanley Center for Psychiatric Research at the Broad Institute, with Edward Scolnick as its founding director. Scolnick's pioneering research on cancer genes in the 1970s has ultimately led to successful treatments for some cancers and patients today.

Scientists at the Broad Institute are hopeful that research on the genetic causes of schizophrenia will lead to similarly successful therapies down the road. They plan to make all of their data publically available to other researchers, while respecting patient privacy.

While progress in schizophrenia research is promising, Lander emphasized that developing treatments for the disorder won't happen overnight. With cancer, it took 30 years from identifying the first cancer genes to developing thousands of drug candidates, Lander said.

Developing treatments for schizophrenia and other psychiatric illnesses is "going to take time," Lander said. "It's frustrating it's not here today. But it is definitely going to happen," he said.

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Tanya Lewis
Staff Writer
Tanya was a staff writer for Live Science from 2013 to 2015, covering a wide array of topics, ranging from neuroscience to robotics to strange/cute animals. She received a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz, and a bachelor of science in biomedical engineering from Brown University. She has previously written for Science News, Wired, The Santa Cruz Sentinel, the radio show Big Picture Science and other places. Tanya has lived on a tropical island, witnessed volcanic eruptions and flown in zero gravity (without losing her lunch!). To find out what her latest project is, you can visit her website.