July 01, 2010
UC San Diego Geneticist Heading New Center Focused on Advancing the Understanding and Management of Mental Illness
Jonathan Sebat, PhD, a pioneering young geneticist whose focus is psychiatric disorders such as autism and schizophrenia, has been named the first chief of the Beyster Center for Molecular Genomics of Neuropsychiatric Diseases at the University of California, San Diego. The Beyster Center was initiated with a gift from philanthropists Betty and J. Robert Beyster, PhD.
Jonathan Sebat, PhD.
Sebat recently joined the UC San Diego Departments of Psychiatry and Cellular & Molecular Medicine as an assistant professor. He was previously on the faculty at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, where he was a founding member of the Stanley Center for Psychiatric Genomics. While at Cold Springs Harbor, Sebat led landmark studies linking variations in the genetic code, specifically in the number of gene copies within the genome (called copy number variants, or CNVs) to mental illness. His team demonstrated that CNVs are an underlying factor in autism, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, and that such mutations can substantially increase risk for other diseases.
“Sebat is one of, if not the, most promising molecular geneticist in the country,” said Lewis Judd, MD, Mary Gilman Marston professor and chair of the Department of Psychiatry at the UC San Diego School of Medicine. “He is a skilled young scientist whose addition is an important step forward for the UCSD School of Medicine.”
In his new role as Beyster Center chief, Sebat will lead clinicians and scientists, whose expertise ranges from psychiatry and cellular and molecular medicine to other clinical and basic sciences, in cross-disciplinary studies aimed at advancing the understanding and management of mental illness.
The Beysters explained their motivation for supporting the Center’s work, “Despite years of interest, the cause and cure for schizophrenia is not yet understood. Drugs that help manage the disease are available, but many have negative side effects, and they fall far short of a solution.”
The team’s research collaborations will include a focus on “personalized” medicine, based on genetic material acquired from individuals to identify patient-by-patient genetic glitches that could lead to the development of disease.
“We are dedicated to translating new findings resulting from genetic studies of psychiatric disorders to real ‘genomic medicine’,” said Sebat. “For example, today we can identify the actual genetic causes of schizophrenia, but we need to get even deeper into understanding the biology of these associations, and possible individualized treatments based on this information. And, just as we can screen for a number of genetic diseases in patients, including Huntington’s disease, Rett syndrome and Fragile X syndrome, we’re interested in making that possible in psychiatric disease.”
The Beyster Center will coordinate closely with the Institute for Genomic Medicine, an organized research unit that joins faculty in basic science, disease biology, pharmacology, engineering, clinical research, and computer science to conduct collaborative research in genetics and genomic medicine, leading to translational studies that ultimately improve human health.
By serving as a link and a catalyst for translational research in neuropsychiatric disease, the Beyster Center will accelerate the translation of research findings into improved screening and diagnostic tests, and more effective treatments, for mental health disorders, said Sebat.
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