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Collaborating to treat mental illness


Newcastle University is part of a new multi-million pound collaboration aimed at producing new drugs to treat schizophrenia.

The £2.75 million research project, involving Newcastle, Manchester University and drug company Autifony, is part-funded by the award of a £1.9 million by the UK’s innovation agency, the Technology Strategy Board.

The project will focus on cognitive behaviour and how changes in brain cell activity can potentially be reset by a new drug to produce ‘normal’ brain activity.

It is believed that circuits in the brain of those with schizophrenia are dysfunctional and therefore, if altered, this could help to alleviate debilitating symptoms of the disorder.

Dr Mark Cunningham and Dr Fiona LeBeau are working together at Newcastle University to give a detailed insight into the pathology of the illness.

“Sadly, there is a lot of stigma associated with mental health disorders,” said Dr Cunningham, a senior lecturer in neuronal dynamics in the Institute of Neuroscience.

“This treatment is being developed to target brain activity and we are very excited about working on the new drug.

“It is a great boost for the North East and it’s a fantastic platform for Newcastle University to work with clinicians.”

A serious psychiatric illness which has seen diminishing investment in research in recent years, existing schizophrenia treatments have a poor success rate for many patients, as well as causing considerable side-effects.

Approximately one in 100 people will experience schizophrenia in their lifetime and the condition imposes a huge social and financial burden.

Patients with the condition have a poor quality of life and prognosis. Anti-psychotics are the main treatment, but up to 70% of patients do not have their condition adequately controlled by existing therapies. Particularly debilitating side-effects are poor decision making, attention and memory.

It is hoped that a phase one clinical trail of the new drug will be undertaken in two years.

Dr Charles Large, chief scientific officer of Autifony, said: “The opportunity provided by this grant to work on a new approach to schizophrenia, for which novel and more effective treatments are urgently needed, is hugely exciting.

“The ion channels that we are targeting in our hearing loss programme are closely implicated in brain circuits which are believed to be dysfunctional in schizophrenia.

“Working with academic collaborators renowned in their respective fields will bring the latest techniques and thinking to bear on this important health challenge.”

published on: 2 July 2013