Extended High-Risk Families
Through the excellent historical genealogical records in the UPDB, the team was able to identify several extended high-risk families where suicide was significantly more common than in the general Utah population, providing an excellent scenario for a researcher trying to identify genetic risk factors. In extended high-risk families, the ability to detect DNA changes contributing to risk is magnified through their occurrence over and over in related suicide cases.
An example of an extended family is shown below. The team emphasizes that they do not have access to identities of the study cases or their living relatives, only family structure, and statistical risk of other co-morbid medical and psychiatric conditions.
Examples of a Utah high-risk extended family. All shaded relatives are suicide cases. Those circled in red have DNA for gene studies.
Link to the Utah Population Database
Through these approvals, this DNA resource was made still more valuable by being linked to the Utah Population Database (UPDB), holding medical, demographic, and genealogic information. With the help of these data elements, the research team is setting out to identify specific gene risk variants, while controlling for the influence of other factors such as psychiatric and physical disorders. The team hopes to be able to sort out gene variants that are related to an increased risk of suicide per se. After initial links to the UPDB records are made, all subsequent DNA studies are done with de-identified data to protect the privacy of families.
Studying high-risk families is therefore a good start for understanding genetics of a specific trait, but findings from these family clusters will also be used to assess risk genes in the unrelated suicide cases. With the use of comprehensive data, including whole genome and whole exome sequencing, the team hopes to find DNA changes associated with risk. Starting the top hits from the search within high-risk families, the team will also screen the non-familial cases for the presence of genetic changes associated with risk that may also occur in unrelated cases.
The research team includes wide-ranging collaborations with scientists and research institutions. Among other factors, the joint ventures will be investigating the co-morbidity of suicide and other conditions, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, cardiovascular disorders, and opiate abuse.
Suicide & Asthma
One of the collaborative efforts deals with the co-morbidity of suicide and asthma, two seemingly disparate conditions. This research is based on published observations that some asthma sufferers have a significant risk of suicidal behavior. In addition to studying co-morbid conditions, understanding how genes and environment interact is a critical issue. Since the likelihood of increased suicide risk is likely dependent on an abundance of both genetic and environmental risk factors, it is not enough to perform isolated studies of genes or environmental hazards.
Suicide & Environmental Conditions
In yet another collaborative effort, the team studies suicide victims exposed to specific environmental conditions. Suicide cases with these exposures might carry genetic factors making them more vulnerable to the particular environmental impact, increasing the risk for suicide.
Suicide is a tragedy. It has a ripple effect on family, friends and the community. We can’t change the past, but we can do something positive for the future. We must care and support those who suffer after the suicide of a loved one.
Doug Gray, MD
Professor of Psychiatry
University of Utah School of Medicine