For people suffering from severe mental disorders such as schizophrenia, antipsychotic drugs can help reduce a number of psychotic symptoms, such as paranoia, delusions and hallucinations. Increasingly, these medications are being used off-label to treat bipolar disorder, anxiety or severe irritability, even amongst children and adolescents. Unfortunately, these drugs can have harmful metabolic side effects that contribute to the rapid development of obesity and type 2 diabetes.
Dr. David Wright is a new investigator with BC Children’s Hospital Research Institute and he aims to develop treatments, either with exercise, special diets or pharmaceuticals, that can reduce these acute metabolic side effects in children and adults.
Dr. Wright is also a professor in the School of Kinesiology and is jointly appointed in the Faculty of Land and Food systems at University of British Columbia. Prior to moving to UBC and BCCHR in June 2022, Dr. Wright was a Canada Research Chair in Lipids, Metabolism, and Health at the University of Guelph. He joined the Research Institute in June 2022.
We spoke to Dr. Wright about his work and how he hopes to translate his pre-clinical work into new treatments for children on antipsychotic medications.
What is the main focus of your work?
The main focus of my work is to investigate how exercise, nutritional interventions and pharmacological manipulations impact our metabolism in our fat deposits (adipose tissue) and liver. In particular, my research is hoping to offset some of the metabolic side effects of antipsychotic medicine that lead to diabetes and obesity in children.
Additionally, these side effects are one of the main reasons why patients discontinue treatment with antipsychotics, which can lead to increased hospitalization and greater likelihood of relapse.
Overall, this work can help us understand how changes in adipose tissue and liver metabolism caused by antipsychotics could influence how the body uses sugar and fat for fuel resources. This could have implications for other diseases or conditions such as diabetes and obesity.
Why is this work important?
Although patients need these antipsychotic drugs to treat and reduce psychotic symptoms, the metabolic side effects of these treatments are still being understood, especially for adolescents and young adults. These drugs have profound effects on how the body stores and metabolizes fats and sugars and the use of antipsychotics can predispose individuals to the development of cardiovascular disease, diabetes and obesity. As the practice of prescribing these drugs to children and teens is getting more common as a method to treat their anxiety, depression, ADHD, or bipolar symptoms, understanding these effects and potentially treating them is very important.
How did you get interested in this particular area of research?
I have long been fascinated by the role of adipose tissue in the body’s metabolism, such as how it is influenced by exercise or the role it may play in disease. It was actually a former graduate student of mine that shared a study showing the profound impact of antipsychotic medication on the very metabolic pathways we had been studying. This realization struck me as both being a very under-explored area and one with potentially serious implications for children and adolescents taking these medications.
There is also something of a chicken and egg problem as many people who develop conditions like bipolar disorder already have pre-existing metabolic derangements such as hyperglycemia. This suggests the link between metabolism, adipose tissue and mental illness could be more substantial than previously suspected.
What brought you to BC Children’s?
I have been a researcher at the University of Guelph for almost 12 years, but am originally from the West Coast, so I was excited by the opportunity to move back.
I was attracted to BC Children’s in particular because of the many opportunities available to collaborate. The research community at the Research Institute gives me room to explore and learn from a number of investigators in related fields, and I have access to amazing core infrastructure. Ultimately, I hope to translate the findings I have made in animal models to patients, and by working closely with the clinicians at BC Children’s Hospital, we can make that goal a reality.
Coming back to Vancouver has been a very good experience for me and my family, and I can’t wait to get started on these new projects.