MSFHR partners on new research exploring the use of genomics to improve drug treatments for people with depression

18 March 2020

A new $1.5 million project, supported by funding from MSFHR, Genome BC and Genome Canada, is exploring the use of genomics to improve drug treatments for people with depression. The project’s lead researchers, Drs. Stirling Bryan and Jehannine Austin, are investigating if pharmacogenomic [1] testing should be routinely used in BC for people with the disorder.

Potential to reduce trial and error

For people with mental health conditions like depression, finding a medication that works without causing severe side effects is often a matter of trial and error. This can contribute to a lower adherence to treatment regimens and poorer health, as well as increased costs to the health care system.

Pharmacogenomics can improve a person’s health by helping them know ahead of time whether a drug is likely to be an effective treatment and be safe for them to take without triggering an adverse reaction. This is one of the strongest examples showing how precision health holds real potential to end the “trial-and-error” approach to therapy.

However, there are still many questions to be answered before there can be wider adoption of pharmacogenomic testing in a clinical setting. “Our goal is to gather the necessary information to assess how much improved health patients might see, as well as whether the testing is good value for money for the health system,” said Dr. Austin. “The multidisciplinary team we have assembled includes people with diverse backgrounds and skills, including patient partners with lived experiences.”

Patient experiences inform research

The work will involve reviewing existing studies to learn from the research of others, and collecting BC – specific information from the records kept by the health-care system. The team will also talk to patients, doctors, nurses, pharmacists, counsellors, and others providing care for patients with mental health conditions in BC.

“We want to gain insight into the typical experiences of patients,” said Dr. Bryan. “This information will be used in a ‘simulation model’, where we can count the health benefits to patients and the costs of changing practice to include routine use of pharmacogenomics testing for depression.”

Funding to improve health outcomes for British Columbians

As BC’s health research funding agency, part of MSFHR’s mandate is to enable the generation, application and uptake of research evidence to improve health outcomes. Working with our partners on research initiatives like this helps us optimize available funding to build capacity in the health research system. For this project, it means we have been able to leverage resources that could result in positive change for how we care for patients with depression in BC.

“MSFHR is committed to partnering on strategic initiatives enabling BC researchers to generate and apply much needed research evidence in areas of high priority to our province’s health system,” says Dr. Bev Holmes, president and CEO, Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research.

Pharmacogenomics shows significant potential for delivering precision health care. If the findings of this study indicate that pharmacogenomics testing provides value to both patients and the health care system it could have a significant impact on how we provide care.


[1] The BC Pharmacy Association defines pharmacogenomics (PGx) as the study of how a person’s DNA affects their response to certain medications.