£4.3million funding for world-leading research into severe mental illness

Picture by Andrew Neel

Researchers from Exeter are part of a pioneering Mental Health Platform Research Hub, which will advance the understanding, diagnosis and treatment of severe mental illness.

The South Wales and South-West England (SW²) Hub, which was awarded a £4.3million grant from UK Research & Innovation (UKRI) and the Medical Research Council (MRC), will bring together an interdisciplinary network of world-leading researchers, from the GW4 Alliance universities of Cardiff, Bath, Bristol, & Exeter, alongside Swansea University, Adferiad Recovery, Bipolar UK, and people with lived experience of severe mental illness, to accelerate impactful research into, and treatments for severe mental conditions.

Severe mental illnesses such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and schizoaffective disorder affect approximately 3% of the UK’s population and cost the UK an estimated £29billion per year. They have been shown to reduce life expectancy by an average of 10-20 years, and place an enormous burden on patients, their carers, and wider society. Severe mental illnesses typically have a long-term impact on people’s ability to function, and at least 25% of people experience debilitating symptoms that do not respond to treatment.

Unlike other areas of medical science, there have been very limited advances in treatments for severe mental illnesses for the last fifty years, meaning that real-world outcomes and recovery rates have remained largely the same since the mid-twentieth century discoveries of antipsychotics and lithium.

The SW² Hub team will look to change this situation and improve the lives of people with psychotic disorders, by combining and analysing data acquired at scale, with machine learning and clustering approaches, to advance knowledge of the causes behind the development of severe mental illnesses.

Research conducted at the Hub will also aim to improve the systems currently in place for the diagnosis of psychotic disorders which is currently based solely on descriptions of symptoms and behaviour. The team will develop more objective methods of diagnosis by using biopsychosocial measures such as genetics, cognitive tasks, brain imaging, markers in people’s blood, as well as assessments of their development and social and cultural background. These more precise diagnoses will enable the development of better targeted treatments, aiming to replicate advances made within cancer care treatment.

Professor James Walters, Director, Centre for Neuropsychiatric Genetics and Genomics at Cardiff University, and SW² Principal Investigator, said: “The SW2 Hub will provide unrivalled opportunities for researchers across South Wales and the South West of England to conduct vital research into crucial areas of mental health science. Collaborating alongside Swansea University and the GW4 Alliance institutions, along with teams in Bipolar UK and Adferiad Recovery, will allow us to harness the collective expertise of our regions to advance our understanding of severe mental illness.”

Professor Jonathan Mill, Professor of Epigenomics, co-head of the Department of Clinical & Biomedical Sciences at the University of Exeter and SW² project Co-Investigator said: “Through the SW2 Hub, the University of Exeter will be involved in understanding the genetic and epigenetic basis of psychotic disorders with the aim of driving advances in the development of diagnostic approaches and novel treatments; I am delighted to be part of this important project into the causes and consequences of severe mental illness.”

Dr Tom Lancaster, Senior Lecturer, Department of Psychology at the University of Bath, and SW² project Co-Investigator said: “Through the SW2 Hub, we are committed to taking the initial, essential steps in leveraging big data to deepen our understanding of the distinct challenges faced by individual patients with severe mental illness. The University of Bath arm of the project will support this aim by identifying both shared and unique features of brain biology to improve the precision of their diagnosis, prognosis, and treatment monitoring”.

Professor Golam Khandaker, Professor of Psychiatry and Immunology and MRC Investigator at the University of Bristol and SW² project Co-Investigator said: “We are excited to be part of this important research collaboration that aims to tackle the difficult but much needed task of developing personalised treatments for people with serious mental illness. The expertise of Bristol mental health researchers in data science and translational research across the MRC Integrative Epidemiology Unit, Centre for Academic Mental Health, and the NIHR Bristol BRC would enable us to make a vital contribution in this endeavour.”

Professor Ann John, Swansea University, Co-Director DATAMIND and SW² project Co-Investigator said: “We are excited to begin work as part of the SW2 Hub leveraging the potential of incorporating big data from multiple sources – the biological, psychological and social- through the SAIL DataBank bringing together experts in each field addressing silos in thinking. The Hub will be instrumental in describing the social and developmental trajectories of those SMI which could underpin more personalised approaches ultimately improving the lives of those living with these illnesses and addressing inequalities in access and outcomes.”

In addition to advancing the diagnosis and treatment of severe mental illnesses, the SW² team’s focus on analysing large-scale datasets, which incorporate biopsychosocial markers and stratifiers, has the potential for wider societal and economic impacts, including helping to address inequalities in service provision.

A core component of the work of the SW² Hub will involve partnering with patient representative organisations, Adferiad Recovery and Bipolar UK, alongside working with a cohort of people with lived experience (PWLE) of schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and schizoaffective disorder, to address the existing lack of diversity in consented research studies, and to ensure that the results of mental health research are representative and applicable to the whole population.

Alun Thomas, Chief Executive, Adferiad Recovery, commented: “Adferiad is delighted to be one of the research co-investigators for the SW² Hub and, we share the ambition that, through high quality research, we might gain a greater understanding of the factors influencing the development of conditions such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. With the engagement and support of the many thousands of people we support each year, we will be able to ensure those living with the conditions, both as patients, service users, family members and carers, play a key role in co-producing high quality and relevant research.”

Dr Tania Gergel, Director of Research, Bipolar UK, said: “We are incredibly excited about being part of the SW² Hub which is, by far, Bipolar UK’s largest and most significant research involvement role to date. The Hub will be a major element in establishing and developing Bipolar UK’s Research division, as well as a huge step forward for lived experience involvement in research and coproduction in general.”

The GW4 Alliance has a critical mass of mental health researchers across its institutions, as demonstrated by the recently launched ‘GW4 Mental Health Research Network’ – which brings together experts from across the Alliance to foster and develop research collaborations designed to address some of the most pressing mental health challenges facing today’s society.

The new SW² Mental Health Platform Hub will provide a means to further bring together and harness this expertise, across the South Wales and South-West England regions. The Hub will also help to develop the next generation of mental health leaders, by involving and training Early & Mid-Career Researchers (EMCRs).

Dr Joanna Jenkinson, MBE, GW4 Alliance Director, said: “Mental health and mental illness are key areas of focus within GW4’s strategic priority of advancing health and wellbeing research and innovation for all. The development of the SW² Hub presents a fantastic opportunity to bring together a vibrant, supportive and productive network of researchers, which harnesses the wealth of expertise that we have in mental health research across the GW4 Alliance, whilst also developing future mental health specialists. Working alongside key industry and charity partners, and our colleagues at Swansea University, we look forward to conducting world-leading research which will improve understanding of, and treatment for, severe mental illness.”

The SW² Hub will form part of a new £22.5m mental health platform, established by UKRI to address the particular challenges of severe mental illness. The platform will bring together researchers from a wide range of medical and non-medical disciplines and institutions.

It aims to connect them together to focus their efforts on generating an in-depth understanding of those who experience SMI to help discover new approaches for diagnosis, treatment and support.

This initiative is supported by funding from the Securing Better Health, Ageing and Wellbeing theme, one of five UKRI-wide initiatives aiming to harness the full power of the UK’s research and innovation system to tackle large-scale, complex challenges.

Professor Patrick Chinnery, Executive Chair, Medical Research Council, explained: “We need to know much more about the causes of severe mental illness so we can develop new treatments. This new UKRI investment will provide this, offering hope and encouragement to all those affected. Securing Better Health, Ageing and Wellbeing is one of five UKRI strategic themes which harness the full power of the UK’s research and innovation system to tackle large-scale, complex challenges such as this. Working with others, we aim to improve population health, tackle the health inequalities affecting people and communities, and promote interventions that keep us healthier for longer.”