Alumni in the picture: Diego Forero

29 September 2017
Alumni in the picture: Genetic research in Neuropsychiatric disorders Is vitally important to the Mental health of people Around the world

Diego Forero directs the Laboratory of Neuropsychiatric Genetics at the Universidad Antonio Nariño in Bogotá, Colombia. In addition to being an associate professor at this university, he is also director of the PhD program in health sciences at its medical school. In 2005, Diego was among the group of candidates applying for the very first VIB International PhD Program. After being selected, he joined the labs of VIB PIs Jurgen Del-Favero (University of Antwerp) and Patrick Callaerts (KU Leuven) and successfully defended his PhD in December 2009 – as the first of the group to do so. As a result, he became the first ‘VIB International PhD’ ever.

One of your promoters told me that you were very determined when you applied for the VIB International PhD Program.
I wanted to do a PhD in psychiatric genetics and I focused on one topic among the 20 research projects that were proposed by the program: to investigate the multifactorial genetics of neuropsychiatric diseases by combining genetic epidemiology, molecular genetics and modeling work in Drosophila.

How do you look back at your period at VIB?
It has been a decisive period in my life and in my professional career. The PhD itself was an important requirement for my current position as an independent researcher and professor. In addition, the doctoral training program was very rewarding, and I learned a lot from my mentors Jurgen Del-Favero and Patrick Callaerts. The fact that I worked in two different labs gave me broader experience in how to organize a lab, manage people and create a fruitful scientific research environment. I also spent some time in Liège to experience the ambiance at both Flemish and French-speaking Belgian universities.

Why have you devoted your career to psychiatric genetics? It’s not the easiest research topic…
Psychiatric genetics is indeed full of challenges, but there are also plenty of opportunities. Despite the high heritability of some neuropsychiatric diseases – bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, to name a few – the identification of genetic risk factors and biological pathways for these diseases has been difficult. In recent years, however, large genome-wide association and exome sequencing studies have pointed towards many genes likely to be involved in specific categories of these disorders.

One of the challenges now is to make sense out of this information by exploring the functional and genomic features of the genes and elucidate their networks. We have explored a number of novel genetic and epigenetic factors for neuropsychiatric disorders and related endophenotypes in our population, using approaches from both molecular genetics and bioinformatics.

You have repeatedly made a plea for neuropsychiatric genetics research in developing countries. How come?
As we have mentioned in our recent publications, these disorders constitute a large burden on global public health and their negative impact is even larger in low- and middle-income countries. Research into the biological basis of human neuropsychiatric disorders should not be an academic effort reserved for a few elite institutions in economically developed countries. This research is vitally important to the mental health of people around the world.

There is an urgent need to improve local infrastructure to carry out medical genomics research in developing countries. Capacity-building might be achieved through research partnerships with developed countries, but even more importantly, between low and middle-income countries themselves. Everyone will benefit from that: studying human diversity in neuropsychiatric disorders enriches the opportunities to find cures, for patients living in Western countries as well.

Go back to the overview 'Stronger through diversity'

Diego Forero