Finding new treatments for schizophrenia

Meet the researchers who are working to find new ways to treat schizophrenia, a serious mental health condition affecting 200,000 Australians and millions worldwide.

Dr Truong explains that there are complex barriers to finding new treatments for this complex and difficult to manage condition. Dr Truong recently completed her PhD with IMPACT’s Novel Treatment and Discovery theme in IMPACT Deputy Director, Ken Walder’s Lab.

Exploring the genetic links to schizophrenia

Dr Truong recently published her research findings in Neuropsychopharmacology in a publication alongside other IMPACT researchers titled ‘Network-based drug repurposing for schizophrenia’.

‘Most of the drugs used to treat schizophrenia were discovered through a lot of clinical observations and a bit of chance more than 60 years ago. Most of these don’t work well, and sadly for some patients don’t work at all, this can have devastating consequences.’ Dr Truong explains.

Despite our growing knowledge of how schizophrenia develops, the medications we currently use target chemicals in the brain like dopamine and serotonin. The research team took a slightly different approach by looking at ‘transcription factors’ explains Trang.

‘Most studies on schizophrenia look at all genes equally, but we took a different approach by looking at transcription factors’

Dr Trang Truong

‘These are like tiny switches that control whether a gene is turned ‘on’ or ‘off’. Even though there aren’t very many of them, they are very powerful. Just a small amount of these ‘switches’ can kickstart a series of reactions leading to a big biological impact on a person.’ says Trang.

This new study offers a different perspective by zooming in on these important players in gene expression and how they interact in what we can think of as biological social networks.

For the first time ever, the team used these insights to explore repurposing existing drugs for schizophrenia and uncovered some new ways these drugs might work on patients. The Walder Lab have already been experimenting with this style of research for bipolar disorder with promising results.

Data-driven research finding new treatments

Instead of trying to create entirely new drugs, the team explored existing ones used to treat other diseases that might work for patients with schizophrenia.

By employing data-driven techniques, the team analysed information obtained from post-mortem brain samples of individuals both with and without schizophrenia to identify the specific abnormalities that set them apart.

‘Once we understood how certain genes were influencing people with schizophrenia, we mined large datasets to find ‘old’ drugs that target the condition in new ways.

Using already existing drugs also allows researchers to fast-track the research journey as we know they are safe to use.

‘In schizophrenia, we discovered that certain transcription factors mainly control important processes related to the body’s energy metabolism and immune systems’, explains Trang.

‘We were able to pinpoint 18 existing drugs that could potentially help treat schizophrenia by targeting these abnormal regulations. Some medications in our list of repurposing candidates, such as rimonabant and kaempferol, have shown promising clinical or preclinical evidence.’

A PhD with Deakin: providing new opportunities

Dr Truong received a Deakin University Postgraduate Research Scholarship (DUPR) to support her PhD research. She has also recently been honoured with the IMPACT Institute Award for Outstanding PhD Completion.

‘After starting my academic career in pharmacy my journey has led me to uncovering the fascinating link between computational methods and drug discovery,’ says Dr Truong.

‘This scholarship has allowed me to fully immerse myself in my passion. Throughout my PhD, I’ve focused on genetic-based approaches. These approaches offer a more nuanced pathway for complex mental disorders, where a single target alone wouldn’t suffice. It’s been an exciting journey, and I’m committed to advancing our understanding of these conditions,

‘Being part of IMPACT allows me to work in a strongly collaborative field, I work with other themes such as Molecular Medicine and Clinical Trials and Interventions which allows us to validate and expand our findings.’ Says Dr Truong

Find out more about the Novel Treatment Discovery theme here and you can follow Trang’s research journey on social media below.