Stem cells open new front against bipolar disorder

Heinz Prechter, founder of the American Sunroof Company, was a pioneering entrepreneur in Detroit's automotive industry--a vital community leader and philanthropist. But Prechter succumbed to a demon that stalked him his entire adult life--bipolar disorder--and committed suicide July 6, 2001.

Prechter's wife, Waltraud "Wally" Prechter, established the Heinz C. Prechter Bipolar Research Fund to find better treatments for this devastating mood disorder, formerly known as manic depression. A decade later, the fund's home at the University of Michigan Depression Center is reporting a new phase in its research--stem cell lines to investigate the genetic and biological causes for the disease.

The best bipolar treatments are only effective for 30% to 50% of patients, U-M's Melvin McInnis says in a news release. "New discoveries have been limited, in part due to the lack of access to tissue and cells from individuals with bipolar disorder. But that is now changing because of the Prechter research program and advances in stem cell research," he adds.

The new stem cell lines were created from skin samples donated by volunteers with and without bipolar disorder. Researchers will coax them into behaving like embryonic stem cells, then reprogram the resulting induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSC) into forming brain cells.

"We will be able to see if there are differences in how the neurons of a person with bipolar disorder make connections, determine how they respond to different medications and explore potential deficiencies in signaling pathways," U-M's Sue O'Shea explains in the news release. The stem cell lines they create will not form the basis for any new therapies against bipolar disorder, but will help researchers study the mechanisms of the disease, O'Shea adds. "The iPS cells renew themselves, so they're an unlimited source of material and offer hope to individuals with bipolar disorder," she explains.

Researchers caution not to expect any new therapies to come from this research for another decade, but Prechter's widow says she is proud that her husband's legacy has grown to include new strategies in fighting the disease. She also emphasizes that bipolar "is like any other illness--cancer, diabetes, heart disease--and deserves the same urgency."

- read more in U-M's news release
- learn more about the Prechter Bipolar Research Fund