Chemistry professor researching genetic causes of schizophrenia

The genetic causes of schizophrenia have remained elusive to researchers, but Indiana University Bloomington chemistry professor Yan Yu is taking on that challenge as part of a collaborative effort involving three institutions.

An illustration of a brain and nerve cellsView print quality image
Identifying the genes that cause schizophrenia would allow for the development of drugs that could be used to treat the neuropsychiatric disorder. Illustration by Getty Images

Yu and her team of graduate students at IU will collaborate with labs at the University of California San Diego and University of North Carolina Chapel Hill on a one-year pilot program to identify the genes that cause schizophrenia.

The severe neuropsychiatric disorder affects 1 in 100 people worldwide -- more than 21 million people -- and affects daily functioning by causing people to interpret reality abnormally. Symptoms can include hallucinations, delusions and confused thinking, and schizophrenia increases the risk of premature death. Treatment is needed to control the disorder, and the researchers hope to aid those efforts with their discoveries.

"Once genes associated with schizophrenia are identified, drugs can then be developed to specifically target the receptors and signaling pathways that are encoded by those genes," said Yu, an associate professor in the Department of Chemistry in the College of Arts and Sciences.

Identifying the genes is challenging because many genetic variations are involved, and studies have identified 145 genomic regions where variation is associated with schizophrenia risk. Thus, understanding how combinations of schizophrenia-related mutations alter neuronal function is a big challenge, Yu said.

The pilot program is supported by a $165,000 award from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and administered by Research Corporation for Science Advancement. The award will be split evenly among the three labs. The funding is seed money to help the labs get preliminary results, Yu said, so they can compete for larger grants.

"The project is very ambitious as it brings together three labs in completely different fields," Yu said.

The multidisciplinary team will combine biosensors and advanced imaging from IU, precision genome editing from UC San Diego, and neuron cell biology from North Carolina. Yu has expertise in quantitative live-cell imaging and will determine how the schizophrenia-associated variations affect endosomal trafficking and degradation in neuronal cells. A Janus particle biosensor technique developed by Yu's lab is the foundation and centerpiece for the collaborative project, she said.

Alexis Komor, assistant professor of chemistry at UC San Diego, and Stephanie Gupton, associate professor of cell biology and physiology at North Carolina, are the other lead researchers on the project.