Lundbeck Foundation has donated its biggest grant ever to Danish psychiatric research, a grant which breaks all Danish records for financed psychiatric research. The project, to be known as ‘The Lundbeck Foundation’s Initiative for Integrative Psychiatric Research’ (iPSYCH)’ will receive 121 million kroner over a three year period with more to come should the research prove promising. The purpose of this research? ”We will investigate why some people develop mental disorders. We will identify biological disease mechanisms, and we also intend to provide the basis for better treatment and prevention[i]”, says Dr. Anders Børglum, Professor of Medical Genetics at Aarhus University and Scientific Director of the research project. Five mental disorders will be investigated; schizophrenia, bipolar, depression, autism and ADHD.
The hunt for the biological cause of mental distress is not new. Ever since Darwin introduced his book On the Origin of Species the search for the biological cause of madness has been on going. Yet despite over 150 years of searching, no biological markers or genes have been found. Instead vast amounts of data have been generated, all promising that “we are almost there, getting there, are about to find the gene that causes, think we have found the gene, think the chemical defect is…” and so on. This is marketed as scientific evidence to prove that mental distress is biological and psychiatry has the cure. The pharmaceutical industry has grown fat on the profits of this lie, Lundbeck is among them.
Lundbeck is a Danish company and is unique in that it is the only pharmaceutical company in the world which focuses exclusively on the Central Nervous System. This specialization started in 1958 when it produced its first antipsychotic drug Truxal that kick-started Lundbeck’s success. However, the major economic turning point was in 1989 when Lundbeck launched their SSRI antidepressant drug Cipramil. This catapulted them to success and cemented their position as a major player along with other pharmaceutical companies. 1993, four years after the launch of the drug Cipramil, Lundbecks profits had risen from 2 million to 236 million kroner due mostly to profits from the sale of this one drug. By the time they finally broke into the American market in 1998, 82% of Lundbeck’s profits were coming from just this one drug[ii].
That pharmaceutical companies finance research is not new and neither is it surprising that a company whose major profits arise from psychiatric drugs would want to finance research in precisely that area. What is of interest though, is who will be doing the research, and one person is notable. A person who has created controversy in his claims of having found the genetic cause for schizophrenia and especially his statements regarding the future possibility of being able to identify and thus giving prospective parents the option of aborting ‘schizophrenic’ foetuses.
Thomas Werge, a prominent Danish biochemist and initiator of the Danish Psychiatric Biobank hit the Danish newspapers when he along with others in a European consortium published a research paper in 2008 announcing that the genes for schizophrenia had (almost) been found. That was how it was picked up by the media with newspaper headings such as:
Extra Bladet– “That’s why one becomes a schizophrenic”.
Politiken – “The mystery of schizophrenia close to being solved”
Berlinske – “Closer to [understanding] the origins of schizophrenia.”
Copenhagen Post (Local paper for English speakers) – “Danish scientists help crack key to schizophrenia”
However, in contrast to the newspapers which were more conservative in their headlines, Region Hovedstadens Psykiatri (Mental Health Services of the Capital Region of Denmark) announced without compunction “The Mystery of Schizophrenia Solved” a very bold statement indeed, considering they represent the psychiatric system. Interestingly, they were also the only ones to state with absolute certainty in 2008 that the mystery of schizophrenia was solved. Not only did they make this statement, but they featured an interview with Werge on his research findings, “These results give science a basis to think differently and to go new ways. We now know what we have always believed is true. The illness is a biological illness of the individual and not a reaction to a sick society as has been claimed in the 1960’s and 1970’s by anti-psychiatry. Therefore, we can for the first time contemplate biological diagnosis such as prenatal screening. This is a whole new way of thinking within this area of psychiatry and necessitates that we proceed extremely carefully and in a responsible manner.”[iii]
It was that statement among other things that provoked national debates on the ethics of aborting ‘schizophrenic’ and thereby other potentially mentally ill babies. These debates stretched far into 2009 and are still going on. Frighteningly, what was consistent in the many debates that followed was the uncontested assumption that it was (is) possible to tell whether a foetus has ‘the genes’ to become mentally ill or not. The debates ranged from whether ‘schizophrenics’ could/should have babies to those people labelled schizophrenics asking such questions as this anonymous woman did in one of the many newspapers, “So, – should I have been an abortion?[iv]” Werge continued to fuel the debate “This can be the beginning of being able to reduce the number of people who have to suffer mental illness[v]” he said in September 2009 in a discussion on mental illness and abortion.
The board of the National Danish Organisation for (Ex-)Users of Psychiatry (LAP) at that time, invited Werge to come and discuss his findings with them and when asked about his statements on potential abortion he claimed he was misquoted by the media and that his research was at times misunderstood. He has however, at no point ever publically recanted on the issue of reducing the mad through abortion and his original statement is still to be found on the website of Mental Health Services of the Capital Region of Denmark. This is the very same organization which in 2010, two years after stating categorically “The Mystery of Schizophrenia Solved” became the coordinators of a huge 30 million kroner research project involving Skt. Hans Psychiatric Centre, Lundbeck and the Icelandic biotech company deCODE. Who is the leader of this 4 year project? Thomas Werge. And now 2012 Werge is to play a prominent role one of the largest financial research projects ever instigated in Danish psychiatric history to find, once and for all, the biological origins of madness.
All this makes me think of Francis Galton the father of the eugenics movement who speculated “The question was then forced upon me – Could not the race of men be similarly improved? Could not the undesirables be got rid of and the desirables multiplied?[vi]
I have never met Thomas Werge but I am told he is a very pleasant man… there are those who would say I too am a very pleasant woman. Unfortunately, in my case there are doubts as to whether my life, technically, is worthy of living.
Let me assure you it is!
My translation: ”Resultaterne giver videnskaben et grundlag for at tænke anderledes og gå nye veje. Nu ved vi, hvad vi hele tiden har troet: sygdommen er en biologisk lidelse hos den enkelte patient, og ikke en reaktion på et sygt samfund, som det blev hævdet i antipsykiatriens dage i 1960’erne og 1970’erne. Dermed kan vi for første gang overveje biologiske diagnosticeringer så som prænatal screening (undersøgelser i fosterstadiet red.). Det er en helt ny tankegang inden for dette område af psykiatrien, og det kræver, at vi går utroligt varsomt frem og gør det på en forsvarlig måde,”
My translation “Det kan blive begyndelsen på, at vi kan begrænse antallet af folk, der skal lide af psykiske sygdomme,”
[vi] Karl Pearson. The Life, Letters, and Labours of Francis Galton. University Press, London, 1914.