The South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC) recently established a new Extramural Unit (EMU) for research on the Genomics of Brain Disorders at the Department of Psychiatry at Stellenbosch University (SU).
The research unit, led by Profs Soraya Seedat and Sian Hemmings, will identify genomic biomarkers for a range of brain disorders, such as posttraumatic stress disorder, HIV associated neurocognitive disorders, foetal alcohol spectrum disorders, schizophrenia spectrum disorders and Parkinson’s disease.
“The unit aims to help reduce the burden of neuropsychiatric disorders in South Africa by addressing cross-cutting, translational neuroscience questions. To achieve this, we’ll use a toolkit comprising innovative multi-omics (e.g. genomics, epigenomics, microbiomics, bioinformatics), applied cognitive-affective approaches, and brain imaging studies,” explains Seedat, who heads the Department of Psychiatry at SU’s Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences (FMHS).
“As brain disorders are polygenic (caused by many different genes), with varied heritability and a degree of overlap in their genetic make-up, a convergent approach to elucidate the common biological mechanisms, through integrating multi-level data (e.g. epigenetic markers, brain-level data, neuropsychological data, and social determinants) is required,” says Seedat.
The Genomics of Brain Disorders Research Unit is only the second EMU to be established at SU – the other EMU is also based in the Department of Psychiatry and is shared with the University of Cape Town. The EMU is approved in five-year cycles and will channel research funding of more than R5 million to the FMHS.
“The new unit will allow the existing Imaging and Genetics in Neuroscience (IMAGINE) research group at the FMHS to expand into a formal hub, it will enhance our scientific competitiveness and visibility, generate additional research outputs, and support more postgraduate trainees,” says Seedat.
The EMU comes at an opportune time as the FMHS’s new Biomedical Research Institute, which is currently under construction, will include a neurogenetics laboratory and a neurotechnology laboratory.
Some of the expected outputs of the Genomics of Brain Disorders Research Unit are to:
Conduct an ensemble of interdisciplinary projects using genome and neuroimaging technologies.
Establish a biorepository comprising a wide range of biological samples (e.g. DNA, RNA, skin, hair).
Establish optimised protocols for the generation and maintenance of brain disorder-specific induced pluripotent stem cell lines at in-house laboratories.
Build capacity and transfer skills in brain disorder research in order to train a new generation of clinician and basic neuroscientists well versed in genomics and neuroimaging techniques.