In the largest research contract in the school's history, the University of Maryland School of Medicine will receive $24 million over six years from the Swiss pharmaceutical giant Novartis to delve into the severest of mental illnesses, schizophrenia.
The collaboration, announced yesterday, aims to produce a drug to treat the most disabling symptoms of schizophrenia, including social withdrawal, memory problems and lack of motivation, for whichno treatment exists. Such an advance could help millions around the world.
"You don't get this much research money unless people think you have what it takes to get to the next level," said Dr. Georges C. Benjamin, state health secretary.
The scope of schizophrenia is huge. It affects 1 percent of the population, ranks as the No. 4 cause of disability worldwide and frequently strikes the young. The illness causes hallucinations, confuses thinking and blunts emotions. Experts estimate a $6 billion market annually for a new treatment.
Under the agreement, researchers will do a wide range of work, mostly in the basic sciences. Little is known about schizophrenia's origins, and available drugs mostly treat hallucinations and delusions.
Scientists from the university and Novartis will complement each other's work.
Novartis researchers, rather than focusing on the conventional target, genes, will skip a step and home in on proteins, searching for those suspected of causing problems in the brain, said Dr. Tage Honore, head of Novartis' nervous system research.
Locally, research will be based at the nationally known Maryland Psychiatric Research Center, a joint program of the university and the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene that focuses on schizophrenia. Scientists there will work on brain scans and new animal models, as well as search their store of post-mortem brain tissue to identify suspicious genes and proteins, said Dr. William T. Carpenter Jr., a professor of psychiatry at the University of Maryland School of Medicine and the psychiatric research center's director.
The center expects to hire 35 to 40 researchers and staff members over the duration of the contract.
Libby Pedrazzani, whose 26-year-old son Kevin is treated at the center, said he suffers most from the symptoms the researchers are targeting. He reads a page, but at the end is confused about what he read. He withdraws from the crush of relatives during holidays. He finds daily routines such as brushing his teeth and changing his clothes almost impossible.
Yet he dreams of a girlfriend, of a volunteer job, of being a part of the world.
"If these symptoms could be lightened in any way," Pedrazzani said, it could change his life.
Novartis has a particular interest in schizophrenia. It markets two anti-psychotic drugs, including Leponex/Clozaril for schizophrenia.
The company also has a new anti-psychotic treatment in development.
The research agreement can be terminated early based on the recommendation of a steering committee made up of company and university officials.
Sales royalty agreements would be drafted later if researchers develop leads for new drugs or diagnostics, said Steven Fritz, the university's associate vice president for research and development.
Sun staff writer Mark Guidera contributed to this article.