It's a familiar lament among clinicians that patients with depression need better treatments and resources. And just as patients need better treatment options, depression researchers need more funding to discover those therapies. That is why as part of its broad UCLA Grand Challenge, the university has chosen to include the Depression Grand Challenge, a visionary initiative that aims to cut the health and economic impacts of depression in half by the year 2050.
Depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide, and it costs the U.S. more than $200 billion each year in direct medical expenses and lost productivity. Even worse, more than 40,000 Americans — many of whom suffer from depression — commit suicide each year. The UCLA Depression Grand Challenge looks to change these grim statistics.
A four-pronged initiative
President Obama has called for universities and associated organizations to set the ambitious goal of solving what he refers to as "grand challenges." With an anticipated budget of $525 million for its first 10 years, the UCLA Depression Grand Challenge is the largest university-led effort of its kind. During its 35-year life cycle, UCLA's new university-wide initiative will consist of:
Teaming up for a genetic cause
Nelson Freimer, MD, Maggie G. Gilbert Professor of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences in the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, will lead the UCLA grand challenge. Dr. Freimer, who also directs the university's Center for Neurobehavioral Genetics in the Jane and Terry Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA, focuses his research on using large-scale genomic methods to identify the genetic basis of neurobehavioral disorders and similarly complex traits.
"Advances in technology for genetic research have now made it possible for us to discover the causes of depression," Dr. Freimer says. "We know a genetics-based strategy will be successful, just as it has been with heart disease, diabetes and cancer."
A gateway to new therapy
But finding the causes of depression is just the first step. "We have to understand not just why, but also how depression arises, and we have to take that knowledge directly back to our patients," Dr. Freimer says. "Depression is such a complex disease that we must understand it from all angles — its basis in the brain, its environmental roots and its social impact."
It's too soon to know how the information gleaned via the grand challenge will benefit society, but the potential is vast. Deciphering depression's genetic code gives rise to the promise of precisely targeted therapies such as those currently emerging in oncology. What's more, preventive strategies may emerge that could block the disease from establishing itself in susceptible people, thereby avoiding much suffering and economic loss.
UCLA already has some experience addressing grand challenges. In 2013, the university launched Sustainable L.A., a research initiative that is now developing a plan for converting Los Angeles County to 100-percent renewable energy and 100-percent local water by 2050.
By Darcy Lewis