Antidepressants are wildly popular in the United States, where one in 10 people take them. The problem is that they sometimes cause what’s called suicidal ideation—thoughts of suicide.
A new genetic test may help doctors identify those patients for whom it’s most likely to be a problem, and thus make prescriptions vastly safer.
A new test being developed by Sundance Diagnostics promises a different tactic. Scientists at the Max Planck Institute isolated 79 genetic markers correlated with an increased risk of antidepressant-induced suicide risk. Taken together, the latest tests show a 91 percent chance of identifying in advance whether antidepressants will trigger suicidal thoughts in a patient taking SSRI-based antidepressants. If the results hold, such a test would let doctors prescribe the drugs with much less fear of an unknown. “It is very important not to deprive patients of antidepressants because of this side effect,” says Andreas Menke, a lead researcher on the study, “but to identify patients at risk and provide these patients at risk with closer monitoring.”
It will take at least another year and a half to conduct the tests necessary for FDA approval, which will test out the markers in a much broader human population over a longer period of time. In the meantime, the lab-developed version may be trickling out to doctors over the next few months. And the test certainly has the potential to find a big market: 11 percent of Americans over the age of 12 takes some form of antidepressant, according to a 2011 study from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but there’s still no proven way to predict or guard against suicidal side effects. For the most part, it’s left to patients to self-monitor and self-report. A precautionary test could become standard practice whenever an antidepressant is prescribed. “This is something we’ve been looking for in the field for a long time,” says Sundance’s consulting doctor Peter Tolias.