Scientists hope to identify common genes in suicide victims

Scientists hope to identify common genes in suicide victims

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- University of Utah researchers and the state Office of the Medical Examiner are collecting blood samples from the state's suicide victims to see if there's a a genetic link that explains why some people kill themselves.

The state's chief medical examiner, Todd Grey, draws blood for toxicology tests as part of every autopsy.

The University of Utah has collected more than 700 vials of blood from suicide victims since it began banking it in 1996. The samples are labeled only with a person's age, gender and race. All but 150 samples have come from adults.

"I'm quite sure we have the largest number of (blood) samples of suicide victims, probably in the world," said Douglas Gray, a suicidologist and associate professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at the university.

He and his colleagues hope the samples will help them understand suicide, a problem the Utah Department of Health called an epidemic in the mid-1990s.

Between 2000 and 2004, Utah had the nation's seventh-highest suicide rate, with 15.82 deaths per 100,000, according to state statistics. It's the second-leading cause of death for Utah males ages 10 to 44.

By year's end, Grey says he will certify as many as 370 deaths as suicides. The actual number is probably higher, however, since intentions are not clear in every case.

"We're hoping (the genetic analysis) will eventually produce information that allows someone to know that their risk for suicide is increased and, with that knowledge, be able to engage in whatever strategies that can help prevent or reduce that risk from being expressed," Grey said.

So far, university researchers have identified genes in people who commit suicide that "are showing up more than you would expect," Gray said.

But William McMahon, chairman of the University of Utah's psychiatry department, said it's too soon to draw conclusions. "Part of what we need to do is get larger samples," he said. "And part of what we need to do is use genetic methods other than what we have used."

University researchers have only "marked" potential candidates and still need to look for "exact sequence variance," McMahon said.

"The markers we're studying are like looking for markers of neighborhoods or regions of a city, and we need to get much finer-grain detail genetic testing." He hopes to submit a paper on the research work to a journal in the next six months.

Identifying a set of genes could help improve treatment, he said. "If you know a gene, then you have a very good hint about a biochemical pathway," and there may be medicines on the market to address that biochemical pathway," McMahon said.

------ Information from: The Salt Lake Tribune

(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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