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Genetic Risk Factors for Familial Suicide

Suicide is the cause of over 33,000 deaths per year in the United States (1.3 percent of all US fatalities) and accounts for about 2 percent of deaths worldwide. In particular, the Rocky Mountain States have the highest age-adjusted suicide rates in the US, and Utah is consistently in the top ten. These statistics, and several unique data resources in Utah, have contributed to the development of the Utah Suicide Genetics Project.

Studying the genetics of suicide is a daunting task. As opposed to genetically simple illnesses, such as Huntington’s disease, suicide is very heterogeneous. Most individuals who commit suicide struggle with mental illness. However, most individuals with mental illness do not commit suicide, which suggests that additional specific risk factors, some of which may be genetic, probably exist.

Suicidal behavior, and more specifically, the completion of suicide, may be dependent on a multitude of genetic factors, which are likely interacting with unknown environmental stressors. These factors also likely differ between individuals, and many combinations of genetic and environmental factors could lead up to the same endpoint – suicide.

Who We Are

In collaboration with the Utah State Office of the Medical Examiner, a team at the University of Utah, Utah Health Department, and Intermountain Healthcare researchers are studying one of the largest DNA collections from suicide victims in the world, now over 3,500 cases. The research team first obtained ethical approvals from the University of Utah Institutional Review Board (IRB), in addition to IRBs at the Utah State Health Department and Intermountain Healthcare. 

Through these approvals, this DNA resource was made still more valuable by being linked to the Utah Population Database (UPDB), holding medical, demographic, and genealogic information. With the help of these data elements, the research team is setting out to identify specific gene risk variants, while controlling for the influence of other factors such as psychiatric and physical disorders. The team hopes to be able to sort out gene variants that are related to an increased risk of suicide per se. After initial links to the UPDB records are made, all subsequent DNA studies are done with de-identified data to protect the privacy of families.