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  Sharon Malley established the memorial fund that bears the name of her late son, Shane Brown, above.

Heartbreak and a Measure of Hope

Genes and suicide:
A fateful link?

“When the doctor handed me my son, he said, ‘Congratulations! You have a perfectly healthy baby boy,’” says Sharon Malley. “And he was. He doesn’t even catch colds. This kid is physically healthy.” Malley stops, reminding herself to use the past tense when she talks about her son, who ran six miles a day and snacked on lettuce like it was candy. “Was,” she says.

Her family was “completely blindsided” February 1, 2001, when her son, Shane Brown, took his own life at the age of 24. He had no history of depression. “We had no forewarning at all.”

Devastated, Malley sought answers in support-group meetings. After hearing several stories that echoed her own, she began to suspect that what cost Brown his life was a flaw present even from the day doctors declared him a healthy baby boy. “I believe that it’s something in the brain that makes these children do this,” she says.

Malley, who began managing endowments for the University’s Office of Finance in 2002, has come to appreciate the profound importance of medical-research funding in furthering an understanding of the body and its perplexing mysteries. Last summer, she told her son’s story to Michelle Leive, a colleague at the Pitt-UPMC Medical and Health Sciences Foundation, and expressed an interest in supporting suicide research. Leive suggested that Malley consider a groundbreaking series of Pitt studies under way in the School of Medicine exploring a possible link between genetics and suicide. Soon after, the Shane Richard Brown Memorial Fund was established.

Since then, Malley has contributed at least $500 every month, which she admits is “a lot” for her. “But I’m trying to build it up as fast as I can.” The idea is to build an initial core fund of at least $20,000, which can be used to benefit targeted research in a sustained way. The goal is challenging, but Malley remains undaunted, hopeful. “If just one family can be spared from the devastation of suicide,” she says, “I will be happy.”

Although one life would more than justify her efforts, the research the endowment will support has the potential to make a difference in the lives of millions, according to George Zubenko (MED ’81), Pitt professor of psychiatry and principal investigator for the current study. “I am convinced that the tools of genetics and molecular biology will enable us to make important contributions to understanding the root causes of depressive illnesses and the negative outcomes they produce,” he says.

Zubenko has dedicated much of his professional career to gene hunting, motivated by the damaging effects of clinical depression that he has witnessed in patients and their families. Since 1986, when his team first began collecting DNA samples from members of families with depressive disorders, decades of work have culminated in several landmark discoveries, which have been noted by CNN, The New York Times, and National Public Radio, to name a few.

Most people who attempt or commit suicide also suffer from psychiatric disorders, says Zubenko, but he adds that, among the many who have such disorders, relatively few ever attempt suicide. This suggests, he says, that a predisposition to suicide is independent of—though influenced by—the presence of certain psychiatric disorders, and that the two factors work together “in a sort of lock-and-key relationship.”

In July 2004, Zubenko’s team announced the discovery of six regions of the human genome, known as loci, where “risk” genes for suicide may reside, becoming the first scientists ever to identify such linkage targets. In other words, the team is exploring the possibility that some genes or combination of genes may increase the risk of suicide in certain individuals, and the team has located areas on the human genome where such genes are likely to exist. Additionally, one of the areas (or risk locus) is on the X chromosome, of which women have two copies, providing a possible explanation for why women attempt suicide more often than men. In a previous study, Zubenko’s team found 19 loci associated with depressive disorders, including the first susceptibility gene ever identified for clinical depression.

The research makes it feasible to consider the existence of suicide-risk genes, as well as the potential development of medications or therapies that might act on the genes to reduce or eliminate the risk of suicide.

Zubenko hopes to do just that in the next phases of his research—examining the effects of certain genes in humans as well as in animals and screening thousands of compounds for their therapeutic potential. “The scope and extent of our research success in this area is now limited only by the funds available to support it,” he says, adding that as National Institutes of Health funding becomes increasingly difficult to obtain, income sources like Malley’s endowment are extremely important.

In her 24th-floor office in the Cathedral of Learning, Malley receives e-mail updates from Pittsburgh’s Center for Organ Recovery and Education—news of the preacher who received her son’s heart, the little girl who received half of his liver. It gives the family a good feeling to know that Shane’s death brought new life, new hope to others.
Working in the Office of Finance, Malley thinks in terms of perpetuity, of contributions outlasting benefactors, and says that though the older endowments in her database were originally penned on onion-skin paper a century ago, they still benefit people today. She hopes that the same will be true for the Shane Richard Brown Memorial Fund.
“Who knows what these researchers can do,” she says. “People didn’t think they were going to find a way to stop polio, either, and they did.” —Elaine Vitone

Al Novak

Notes from Novak

As the academic year winds down and spring blossoms in western Pennsylvania, I am pleased to announce a new addition to the Discover a World of Possibilities endeavor—a fundraising venture that will help the University continue to be a leader in science education.

The Kresge Challenge will enable the University of Pittsburgh to create an upgraded science facility, the Life Sciences Annex. The annex, located at the intersection of Clapp, Langley, and Crawford halls, will add 50,000 square feet of laboratory space to the Departments of Biological Sciences, Neuroscience, and Psychology. The space is critical to cutting-edge education and research for undergraduate and graduate students in those fields.

Most of the costs for constructing the new space have been provided by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. However, funds for essential, upgraded laboratory equipment were not part of the construction costs. The Kresge Challenge will help support the purchase of state-of-the-art equipment to be added to the facility for use by students.

With a $2 million goal, the initiative was jumpstarted by a $500,000 “challenge” grant from the Kresge Foundation, one of the nation’s most prestigious and forward-thinking philanthropic organizations. To meet the challenge, $1.25 million of the $2 million raised will be used to create an endowment to offset future costs of equipment upgrades and maintenance—a great investment in the future of science education at Pitt.

I hope you will consider making a gift to the Kresge Challenge for the Life Sciences to help build science education for future generations of University of Pittsburgh students. The effort is well-suited to the University’s long-term goals, which are aimed at creating a sustained source of funding that will provide students with financial assistance; help support faculty teaching and research, which directly benefit Pitt students; and build a physical campus infrastructure to support 21st-century education.

For more information about the Kresge Challenge, please call Andrew Falk at 412-624-6085.

For more information about the Discover a World of Possibilities campaign, go online:

Campaign Watch

Institutional Advancement is working hard to reach $1 billion, and Pitt’s alumni and friends are responding. We are now closing in on that goal: $942 million!

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