Researchers from UNSW have been awarded more than $7.5 million in funding for three new mental health and suicide prevention research projects.

The funding is part of $20 million additional funding for research to improve mental health care and reduce suicide rates in Australia announced by the Minister of Health, the Hon. Greg Hunt.

UNSW Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research) Professor Nicholas Fisk congratulated the researchers on securing 45 per cent of the $17 million funding awarded nationally to date.

“An increased number of Australians will experience a mental illness in their lifetime as we battle COVID-19.  Research to help reduce the rate of suicide and investigate how pharmacogenomics can be used to tailor mental health prescriptions will be of great assistance to many Australians,” Professor Fisk said. “It’s never been a more important time to prioritise mental health and suicide prevention research.”

Suicide Prevention Research

A project led by Scientia Professor Helen Christensen AO, Director of the Black Dog Institute and Professor of Mental Health at UNSW Medicine is one of three research projects to receive funding to help reduce the rate of suicide in Australia.

Prof. Christensen will receive $3.7 million for the Under the Radar Project. This will develop a comprehensive person-centred service for people who are at risk of suicide but have not sought help through formal channels. 

“Between 50-60 per cent of people who die by suicide do not seek help from a health professional for their suicidal thoughts prior to their deaths,” Prof Christensen said. 

“However, we know from recent research that the internet is a preferred method of help seeking. Our own data support this – around 8000 people a year who complete a self-assessment via our Online Clinic feel suicidal every day but have not shared this with a health professional. We need to reach these people where they are, online, and provide a responsive style of help that meets their needs.”

While there are clear advantages to an internet-based service, such as accessibility, acceptability, high capacity and low cost, a digital response is likely to be only the start of the comprehensive plan of care needed for someone at risk. 

Research on the use of pharmacogenomics in providing more effective treatment options

Pharmacogenomics looks at how genetics can affect a person’s response to certain medicines.

Associate Professor Janice Fullerton from Neuroscience Research Australia and UNSW Medicine, and Conjoint Senior Lecturer Doctor Kathy Wu from UNSW Medicine’s St Vincent’s Clinical School are leading two of four projects to receive funding to investigate how pharmacogenomics can be used to tailor mental health prescriptions to the needs of each individual and improve health outcomes.

A/Prof. Janice Fullerton will receive $1 million to investigate the pharmacogenomic signatures of bipolar disorder to improve treatment outcomes.

Bipolar disorder treatment often entails a sequential trial-and-error strategy with different medicines. As a consequence there are lengthy delays in achieving remission of symptoms for those patients who are successfully treated, while many others are ultimately classified as treatment resistant.

“My team are excited at the opportunity to advance our understanding of the genetic and biological signatures of treatment response for bipolar disorder, to increase capacity for personalised medicine and ultimately improve health outcomes for people living with this major mental illness,” A/Prof. Fullerton said.

Doctor Kathy Wu will receive $2.95 million to conduct a trial of genotype-guided versus standard psychotropic therapy in moderately-to-severely depressed patients.

This project combines new (pharmacogenomics) and emerging (neuroimaging biomarkers) technology with large-scale data, in a novel Deep Learning application, aiming to refine existing tests and enhance precision of psychotropic therapy in depression treatment. The project has potential to change practice, as well as to lead to clinical guidelines and a user-friendly pharmacogenomics support tool.

“This is a very exciting opportunity to leverage recent advances in genomics to improve the health outcomes of this vulnerable patient population. This project brings together a wide range of expertise with a vision to build a patient-centred mental health service,” Doctor Kathy Wu said.