Scientists at the University of Cambridge have developed a way to screen treatments for schizophrenia on single cells from a patient’s blood sample, which could speed up drug discovery and help to personalize treatments for people with the condition.

Around 21 million people worldwide suffer from schizophrenia, and this is likely to get worse with aging populations. Unfortunately, companies have lost interest in developing new drugs for this condition and other mental disorders.

“Mental disorders are the leading cause of disability worldwide, however neuropsychiatric drug discovery programmes by large pharma companies have shrunk by 70% in the past 10 years, and continue to decrease,” Santiago Lago, one of the researchers involved in the study, told me.

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One reason why companies are discouraged from developing treatments for disorders such as schizophrenia is that it’s not possible to screen potential treatments on brain samples from patients in the same way you can with tumors from a cancer patient.

A team of researchers from Cambridge has developed a new way to screen potential drugs in patients with schizophrenia. Instead of taking samples of brain tissue, the scientists instead used the patient’s blood cells as a proxy. Although blood cells are very different from nerve cells, blood cells have similar enough internal functions to model the drug’s effects.

schizophrenia brain united kingdom

schizophrenia brain united kingdom

This technology has been derived from cancer research and its application to mental disorders is unprecedented,” Lago said.

In a study published in Science Advances, the researchers took blood cells taken from patients with schizophrenia and tested each cell with drug candidates, including drugs already approved for other conditions. They found that approved drugs that could work in schizophrenia include drugs marketed for hypertension and inflammation.

The researchers also found that the effects of schizophrenia drugs on the cells could predict the effect of the drug in patients in the clinic. This means that the technology could be used to personalize schizophrenia drugs to patients, who often show a lot of variability in their responses to particular drugs.

The researchers told me that they welcome commercial partners interested in this tech. One of the few companies working on a treatment for schizophrenia is the US-based Karuna Therapeutics. Its treatment targets different cell surface proteins to existing drugs, and is currently in phase II trials.


Images from Shutterstock

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