Every 40 seconds, a person commits suicide. Nearly a million people take their own lives every year. Suicide could be triggered by any or a combination of factors: depression, a traumatic experience, loss of a job or a loved one, a cancer or AIDS diagnosis, mental disorders, alcohol and drug abuse, and yes − by our genes.
Epidemiological studies show that suicides run in families. The genetic roots of suicide have led many researchers to try and create genetic tests to show suicide risk. Since DNA biomarkers are found in blood, can a simple blood test reveal our risk for committing suicide?
Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine researchers think so. They have created a prototype blood test that could measure changes in a type of gene called SKA2, which is responsible for suppressing negative thoughts and impulsive behavior. If certain chemicals or stressors cause SKA2 to malfunction, it impairs the individual’s ability to cope with stress and to develop suicidal thoughts.
The scientists studied postmortem brain samples and blood samples from living people both with and without mental problems, and found out that those who committed suicide, had attempted to do so, or had harbored suicidal thoughts, exhibited the most defects and lowest activity levels of the SKA2 gene. The changes were caused by a process called methylation, and the DNA methylation biomarker found in blood can predict suicide risk, according to the Johns Hopkins web page on newly invented technologies.
“SKA2 significantly interacted with anxiety and stress to explain about 80% of suicidal behavior and progression from suicidal ideation to suicide attempt. These findings implicate SKA2 as a novel genetic and epigenetic target involved in the etiology of suicide and suicidal behaviors,” according to the study published recently online in the American Journal of Psychiatry.
Lead study author Zachary Kaminsky, Ph.D., an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, told Forbes that the test could potentially form part of screening protocols for at-risk patients, such as soldiers returning from combat zones, or at emergency departments handling patients with unknown suicide risk profiles.
“With a test like ours, we may be able to stem suicide rates by identifying those people and intervening early enough to head off a catastrophe,” Kaminsky said.
While Johns Hopkins is in the process of licensing its suicide risk test, another group is now ready to launch its own. According to MIT Technology Review, Sundance Diagnostics in Colorado “says it will begin offering a suicide risk test to doctors next month, but only in connection with patients taking antidepressant drugs like Prozac and Zoloft.” The DNA test kit will be carried out on a saliva sample, according to Sundance CEO Kim Bechthold.
Sundance based its test kit on research conducted in 2012 by the Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry on people who were taking anti-depressants, Tech Review reported. According to the company, that investigation discovered 79 genetic markers that together predicted with 91 percent certainty a person’s suicidal tendencies.
As promising as these projects appear, some are not convinced.
“I don’t think there are any credible genomic tests for suicide risk or prevention,” Muin J. Khoury, head of the Office of Public Health Genomics at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told Tech Review. “It’s a striking finding,” Virginia Willour, a geneticist at the University of Iowa, said about the Johns Hopkins study. “But as always, when you look at complex genetics, you need replication. Time will tell if it [stands up].”
Yet, as genomics research continues to advance, skepticism could slowly fade as scientists find the pieces to the puzzle that is suicide.