Drug breakthrough for schizophrenics

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The Independent Online
Two breakthroughs are on the horizon in the treatment of schizophrenia, the most common cause of severe mental illness.

One is a skin test for the condition, which affects around one in 100 people in the UK before they reach the age of 45, with a similar incidence worldwide; the other is a new drug which its makers claim is free of the side effects associated with earlier treatments.

Scottish scientists have developed a skin test which can identify within five minutes patients who are likely to be schizophrenia sufferers. The test is based on the fact that Niacin, one of the group B vitamins, causes a reddening, or flushing, of the skin in normal people, but in schizophrenics causes only a much reduced reaction, or none at all.

Researchers at the Craig Dunain Hospital in Inverness, led by Doctor Ian Glen, of the Highland Psychiatry Research Group, believe that the test may help researchers trace the cause of the illness and help predict deterioration. They feel that because it is such a simple way of identifying schizophrenia, it can be used with adolescents. Identifying teenage patients at an earlier stage and beginning treatment earlier gives a much higher likelihood of recovery.

The new drug is Seroquel, close to being launched by the UK pharmaceuticals company Zeneca, which claims it is a revolutionary new treatment which has none of the side effects associated with other treatments of the illness, which include Parkinson's-disease-like tremors or involuntary movements of the arms, head or even tongue.

Seroquel, which has taken 20 years to research, develop and bring to market, received tentative approval from the US Federal Drugs Administration on Friday. Full approval is expected in the next few weeks.

Approval to market the drug in Britain is expected imminently and Zeneca has been recruiting a specialist sales force to market the drug here. It could be available by the end of the year.

Every year 35,000 people are admitted to hospital in the UK with schizophrenia and estimates suggest that 250,000 suffer from the illness at any one time in the UK. The incidents vary with age, with the highest rates occurring in young men aged between 16 and 25 and in women between 26 and 36.

The illness has been given maximum media exposure recently as Joe, a teenage character in EastEnders, has been diagnosed as suffering from it.

The National Schizophrenia Fellowship, which advised the programme on the illness, says that this has been the best way of educating the public.

"If I could have chosen one way of raising ... awareness of schizophrenia it would have been to have a character on the most popular UK soap opera develop the illness," said NSF chief executive Bharat Mehta.

"People can go for years without an accurate diagnosis and even then, families are reluctant to accept it as they don't want a member to be labelled as schizophrenic."