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'We're at the tip of an iceberg': How DNA is helping to personalize medicine for kids

Updated: Mar 17, 2021

Calgary research funded by donations to Build Them Up campaign could reshape the way specialists care for children and youth with anxiety, depression

Thanks to generous community support, construction of Calgary’s first Centre for Child and Adolescent Mental Health has now begun. Through a partnership among Alberta Health Services, the Alberta Children’s Hospital Foundation and the community, the Centre will begin providing new services for young people and their families in Fall 2022. Even before the Centre opens, donations to the #BuildThemUp campaign are making a number of crucial programs and research initiatives possible, including a trailblazing pharmacogenetics program.


When a child suffers from anxiety or depression, the right medication can be transformative. Unfortunately, finding the right medication – and the right dose – isn’t easy.

Medication can affect kids in different ways and there are some children who may not improve or will suffer an adverse reaction. For kids already trying to manage anxiety or depression, it’s not healthy. For their helpless parents, it’s heartbreaking.

Scientists now know answers lie in a child’s genetic makeup, and research at the new Centre for Child and Adolescent Mental Health will explore new frontiers of precision medicine that could reshape the way specialists care for kids.

Dr. Chad Bousman is a pharmacogeneticist within the Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute (ACHRI) at the University of Calgary who studies how genes affect a child’s response to drugs. He specializes in medications used to treat mental health issues for kids and is conducting innovative research funded by community donations through the Alberta Children’s Hospital Foundation.

His project is Canada’s first evidence-based pharmacogenetic testing service in child mental health and is among the suite of priority research projects that will integrate with care at the Centre.

Dr. Chad Bousman studies how genes affect a child's response to drugs.

“Antidepressants take somewhere between five and eight weeks to work,” says Bousman. “If you have to wait that long to find out it doesn’t work, and then you have to move on to another medication and wait five or eight weeks to see if it works, you can see how that just isn’t helping patients.”

Two genes responsible for the way our bodies metabolize mental health medications have already been identified. Using DNA harvested from saliva, Bousman can analyze an individual’s genetic makeup and identify who will likely metabolize the drug properly, and who will not. Based on a young person’s unique metabolic profile, Bousman can then make informed recommendations around medications and proper dosage.

“There’s a lot of potential here for us to be a model for the world in how to do this, and it’s really exciting."Dr. Chad Bousman

Bousman says the data collected from willing participants at the Centre for Child and Adolescent Mental Health will provide scientists with invaluable genetic information that will enable future discoveries.

“We’re at the tip of an iceberg here,” he says. “Two genes are good, but there are many more that are involved in how people respond to mental health drugs. This will help identify them.”

“There’s a lot of potential here for us to be a model for the world in how to do this, and it’s really exciting,” says Bousman.

What’s exciting for researchers is transformative for families.

"I want this for everyone." - Naomi Pearce, 18

Naomi Pearce was heading into Grade 11 when she was diagnosed with depression and anxiety. Her doctor prescribed antidepressants and there was no change. She was put on another medication, however, the dosage was too low.

“It worked a little, but not enough,” says Naomi.

Naomi spiraled until one day another doctor urged her to seek immediate attention at the Alberta Children’s Hospital.

She was admitted and then moved to the adolescent mental health unit at Foothills Medical Centre where over a period of two months she began to heal.

That was two years ago. Today she is in college, “alive and thriving” and is encouraged by Bousman’s research.

“I want this for everyone,” she says. “Thinking back to my own experience with the trials and errors of antidepressants, it was frustrating. I was already struggling with so many other things in my life, and then to have to deal with ‘try this medication,’ and ‘try that medication,’ it was hard, and I still wasn’t getting better, so this is really exciting.”

Naomi Pearce, 18, is excited by Dr. Bousman's research and the hope it offers to kids and families in our community.

The new Centre will be one of the most robust research-intensive community-based mental health care facilities for young people in Canada, with a direct pipeline from discovery to care – all in one setting. In partnership with Alberta Health Services, the research initiatives involve several faculties at the University of Calgary, led by experts from the Owerko Centre at the Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute and the Mathison Centre at the Hotchkiss Brain Institute.

Be part of the movement to make this Centre a reality.

Donate today.

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