Stem Cells Unlock Bipolar Disorder Secrets

Understanding bipolar disorder

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

(RxWiki News) In 2001 Heinz Prechter, a successful automotive entrepreneur, committed suicide after a lifetime of battling bipolar disorder. He was only 59 years old, and left behind two children and a wife.

5.7 million other Americans suffer from bipolar disorder, formerly known as manic depression. Five to 15 percent of those will attempt to take their own life at some point, and the lack of effective treatment is a big reason for the high suicide risk.

"New hope is on the horizon for those suffering from bipolar mood disorder."

Heinz Prechter's widow, Wally, established a research fund at the University of Michigan Medical School in her husband's name. In groundbreaking research there, led by Sue O'Shea, new stem cell lines developed from the skin of adults with bipolar disorder offer a new opportunity to understand the genetic secrets of this debilitating mood disorder.

The cell donors have agreed to participate in a long-term study involving hundreds of bipolar patients, enabling scientists to link these new genetic findings with the effect of different medications.

Current treatments for bipolar disorder are only effective in 30 to 50 percent of patients, says Melvin McInnis, MD, a professor at UM Medical School.

O'Shea explains that the stem cells will enable her research team to see how the neurons of a bipolar person make connections, and how they respond to different medications.

With five stem cell lines already created, the goal is to develop 30 lines, with 20 from bipolar samples and 10 from control subjects.

Caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain, bipolar disorder is a largely hereditary disease that causes large changes in mood, thoughts, energy and behavior that affects a person's entire being.

The University of Michigan study is an example of how stem cells can be used not just to treat disease, but to actually understand the mechanisms of a disease, says O'Shea. The Prechter longitudinal study has already collected more than five years' worth of data, but new treatments from this research could be a decade away.

“I’m really proud that over the last 10 years my husband’s legacy has grown to include the strides we’re making to understand bipolar disorder and find new treatments,” Wally Prechter says.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
August 23, 2011
Last Updated:
August 24, 2011