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Schizophrenia penetrance


Gene sequencing and mental illness research (Part 2)
James Watson Scientist
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So there are lots of partisans for mental illness research - for cancer research in Congress, almost none for mental illness. It's so - sort of diminishes, you know, not only the life of the people who are victims, but those who, you know, have to take care of them. So I think things are better now in the UK. Stephen Fry coming out and making very visible that he's bipolar is a very good thing. Bipolar of course is - people when they're not in the manic or the depressed phase can be very high functional. Schizophrenia, you're never high functional. And up to now, you know, the Wellcome Trust has been very actively providing money to do cancer genomes and not mentally ill. It's just not that the - but the financial harm caused by mental illness probably exceeds that caused by cancer, because even though the number of victims is much smaller they're affected all their lives and they don't die necessarily early, they just have a normal life with many of them when their parents die being the homeless on the streets. So it's a major interest of mine now, you know, having started the Human Genome Project to see if we can't at least in this one bipolar family in Scotland find the gene. You know, and then find others, but just show that we can do it. It's a risky one. You know, the evidence just may be messy, so I don't know. And you could say, well, if it was only $1,000 for a genome, we'd only spend $200,000, so why spend 20 times that amount when we're going to do it cheaper? But if you're the father of a child with mental illness, you just want to - it's worth doing at $20,000 and we'll see if we get to the $1,000. I was - for bipolar disease, if you could find the gene which, you know - then there have been two sort of hypotheses - that mental illness is due to really a sort of gene with strong effect, either dominant or recessive, versus you know, genes just slightly predisposing you and if you get too many of them you do it. But the sort of way it runs through families, at least in those cases it looks like genes with big effects, 'cause you're either very sick or you're not, which wouldn't be the thing if you had something caused by 20 different genes and it could dilute out and not be so strong. There's now a sort of change of thinking which was at the Cold Spring Harbor Symposium on Evolution, molecular aspects, in June, which is everyone has sort of been thinking that, you know, animals evolved by your finger getting a little longer, a little longer, a little longer. But it may be that, you know, you go from a short finger to a tall finger in only a couple of changes, sort of by big effects. So - in which case, in the case of mental disease, a gene which caused mental disease would eventually be selected out, depending how bad it was, might run through three generations, five generations. I think you find longer families with predominantly bipolar because the people can reach the age where they have children and it's not - but you’d like to be able to find the gene and then do antenatal diagnosis and let someone who bears the disease have children knowing the children won't have it. You know, I know of such families, and it's an awful disease. My sister's only son died of being bipolar. So I've had a son with schizophrenia and a nephew with bipolar. Whether, you know, my sister and I were lucky we had the, you know, same bad gene but it didn't penetrate through, I don't know. Won't know until we see it. And you know, I'll always sort of act as if I don't have it. It's certainly the most rational way to go through life.

American molecular biologist James Dewey Watson is probably best known for discovering the structure of DNA for which he was jointly awarded the 1962 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine along with Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins. His long career has seen him teaching at Harvard and Caltech, and taking over the directorship of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York. From 1988 to 1992, James Watson was head of the Human Genome Project at the National Institutes of Health. His current research focuses on the study of cancer.

Listeners: Walter Gratzer Martin Raff

Walter Gratzer is Emeritus Professor of Biophysical Chemistry at King's College London, and was for most of his research career a member of the scientific staff of the Medical Research Council. He is the author of several books on popular science. He was a Postdoctoral Fellow at Harvard and has known Jim Watson since that time

Martin Raff is a Canadian-born neurologist and research biologist who has made important contributions to immunology and cell development. He has a special interest in apoptosis, the phenomenon of cell death.



Listen to Martin Raff at Web of Stories



Duration: 6 minutes, 43 seconds

Date story recorded: November 2008 and October 2009

Date story went live: 18 June 2010