With the ever-increasing potential of new technology and the exponential growth of the life sciences field, researchers are always running into new problems to solve. In this interview series, we get scientists’ opinions on the ‘Big Challenge’ in their field and the steps being taken to address it. From new and unique hurdles to fresh takes on common problems, we dive into the complexities of the research landscape.
In this interview, we chat to Orna Issler (Icahn School of Medicine, Mount Sinai) about the big challenge in molecular psychiatry and the ‘dark side of the genome.’
FLG: What is your background and role?
Orna: My background is in both psychology and biology, which I followed up with neuroscience research, the study that explores where the mind arises from matter. My past research at the Weizmann Institute and Mount Sinai has focused on the epigenetic mechanisms by which exposure to stress leads to the development of psychiatric conditions such as depression. My recently opened research group at the NYU Neuroscience Institute focuses on the role of the dark side of the genome, non-coding RNA, in susceptibility and resilience to stress, which is part of the field of molecular psychiatry.
FLG: What is the ‘big challenge’ in your field?
Orna: First and foremost, our limited understanding of how a healthy brain works makes unfolding what happens in pathological conditions a considerable challenge. The complexity and heterogeneity of psychiatric disorders set an additional layer of challenge. Depression, for example, can manifest in different signs and symptoms across patients and is linked to a wide array of genetic variations and other biological factors. Mapping causality, identifying molecular mechanisms, and finding patterns of very noisy phenomena is a massive challenge.
FLG: Why should people care about this?
Orna: Depression is one of the leading causes of disability worldwide. While it is a pervasive disorder, our understanding of its underlying neurobiology is limited, hindering our ability to prevent, diagnose and effectively treat patients. Understanding the molecular mechanisms leading to depression will pave the way for developing improved diagnostic and therapeutic tools.
FLG: What is being done to tackle the issue, or what should be done to tackle the issue?
Orna: The development of modern tools for high throughput genome-wide molecular screens has revolutionized our ability to study molecular psychiatry. Such unbiased approaches combined with advanced bioinformatics allow us to probe genetic, epigenetic, transcriptional and translational variation in numerous cases, controls and animal models. Now, our ability to map the complexity of psychiatric disorders has dramatically expanded, and the upcoming challenge is to translate this growing knowledge into the clinic.
FLG: What is your advice to people breaking into the field?
Orna: My advice will be to go for a genuinely novel and risky path. There are so many open questions and unknowns in neuroscience and molecular psychiatry. While it may be scary, frustrating and even despairing, we need to explore new pathways and targets to find a route to a novel translational solution.
Want to hear more? Orna Issler will be joining us at the Festival of Genomics and Biodata in Boston this October! You don’t want to miss out – tickets are free for 90% of attendees, so grab yours now.