In 2014, researchers, academics and students at Bournemouth University began an ambitious project into schizophrenia and other psychiatric disorders, collaborating with experts from other universities around the world.
The project, led by Dr Kevin McGhee, took a three-strand approach, covering computational genetics, functional genetics and psychiatric genetic counselling.
It’s a fantastic example of the concept of fusion, with students, academics and external experts all collaborating to deliver impactful research and push boundaries, in this instance within the fields of psychiatric genetics and psychiatric genetic counselling.
A number of undergraduate students were involved from the outset, with their work on the computational genetics strand helping to identify the two genes that would be investigated through the functional genetic strand of the research.
As part of this initial work, four students visited the National University of Ireland in Galway. Once two genes had been chosen as the focus for the study, ten undergraduate students and one Master’s student worked to test and identify the functions of these genes, using fruit flies (Drosophila). Fruit flies are useful for genetic research due to their relatively short reproductive cycle and the common genes that they share with humans.
They visited the University of Manchester as part of this functional genetics research, experiencing different laboratories and equipment, as well as making connections with others specialising in genetic research. Kevin believes these kinds of experiences can be hugely beneficial to students, by broadening their horizons and helping them decide whether they’d like to pursue a research-based career.
A collaboration with Dr Jehannine Austin from the University of British Columbia, a specialist in psychiatric genetic counselling, shaped the third strand of the research project - psychiatric genetic counselling.
This element of the project involved Kevin and Jehannine running workshops about psychiatric genetics with genetic counsellors in the UK. It proved very successful and has led to further funding to support more workshops during the summer of 2016, and a pilot scheme to introduce psychiatric genetic counselling services to a select group of NHS patients in Bournemouth and Weymouth.
Dr Kevin McGhee
“This project has been fantastic for kick-starting research into psychiatric genetics and genetic counselling at BU,” Kevin explains. “We’ve lain excellent groundwork with the research carried out to date that will help us deliver insights into this side of genetic research.
“It’s been particularly rewarding to work with other experts from around the world to introduce psychiatric genetic counselling to the UK, and the opportunity to work with local NHS services wouldn’t have arisen without the initial project,” he adds.
I’ve also enjoyed seeing a number of the undergraduate students involved in the project continue with research in this and related fields. Being involved in an international research project is a fantastic opportunity for them and really helps show them what’s possible once you graduate.”
Kal Grimes, current PhD student
“Bournemouth University has shown rapid growth in many fields, including Drosophila (fruit fly) genetics. Now the DNA lab houses hundreds of fly strains, a full-time PhD student (me), two research assistants, a widely published Drosophila researcher, a widely published neurological geneticist, and a multitude of undergraduate students. The fields researched using fruit fly include neurological disorders and cardiac diseases, along with some other associated topics and areas.
“I was introduced to fruit fly work in my undergraduate (BSc) dissertation at Bournemouth University, where I quickly became astonished at the volume and complexity of the work based around such a small organism. Gaining interest the more I read, I quickly discovered the usefulness of such a model organism, where far too many fundamental genetic breakthroughs were as a result of the fruit fly’s many beneficial traits,” Kal explains.
“I continued into my Master’s degree (MSc), further developing my skills as a fruit fly geneticist. During this period I attended a Drosophila training scheme (pdf 575kb) held at the University of Manchester's fruit fly facility, organised by Professor Andreas Prokop. This event further opened my eyes to the benefits of fruit fly work, and gave me the belief that future breakthroughs will still be as a result of a pilot study using Drosophila. I gained some vital background knowledge which was helpful to complete my MSc, and that I use even now I have continued on to do a PhD in Drosophila genetics.
Through being a small part of the project Kevin McGhee ran, I have become passionate about becoming a genetics researcher."
"Along with the upcoming facilities and supervisory team in the ‘Translational Genetics Group’, this passion was one of the key factors in my decision continue to study at Bournemouth University.”
Dr Jehannine Austin, University of British Columbia
“Genetic counselling is fundamentally all about helping people to better understand what we know from research about the causes of the illness that they have, or that their loved one has. It's also about using this understanding of cause to help people to understand the things that they can do to better take care of their mental health for the future, and about helping people to manage the emotional issues that often go along with our explanations for what causes an illness,” Jehannine explains.
“We know from research studies that people who live with psychiatric disorders and their families are interested in receiving genetic counselling, and from work that we and others have done, we also know that genetic counselling can be helpful for this population. However, we also know that very few people with psychiatric disorders and their families actually get access to this service, that people with psychiatric disorders are not routinely referred to generalist genetics clinics.
“So, a few years ago, we started a specialist psychiatric genetic counselling clinic in Vancouver, Canada. It is the first one of its kind in the world, and data we have been collecting about patient outcomes after receiving genetic counselling show that it can be really helpful to people, but it was not available as a specialist service to many people,” she adds.
Our transatlantic collaboration between UBC and Bournemouth University has been absolutely pivotal in laying the groundwork for bringing psychiatric genetic counselling to the UK, so that families living with psychiatric disorders on this side of the Atlantic can benefit from this service too."
"We have been enjoying a really productive collaboration to build capacity amongst genetic counsellors in the UK to deliver psychiatric genetic counselling, to establish a UK-based psychiatric genetic counselling clinic, and to measure patient outcomes of the intervention too.”