NEW YORK, NY (June 29, 2007) -- Autism Speaks today announced that it has approved $15.2 million in funding for 52 new research grants, spanning a wide range of topics to improve our understanding of the risk factors for autism, its underlying mechanisms, and how a disorder that now affects one in every 150 children might be more effectively treated and prevented. Many of the research projects expand on existing knowledge of autism, while others explore innovative ideas that have had less research support, and several serve as resource-building initiatives that will facilitate further investigations in the future. Autism Speaks received more than 265 grant proposals during this grant cycle, with those that have been funded representing the studies of the highest quality.
The cycle's biomedical research grants fall into three general funding categories (Pilot Studies, Basic and Clinical Grants, and Treatment Grants) and are among the most innovative proposals funded to date. The following highlights some of the projects approved in this round:
Pilot Studies: Grants of this type are intended to draw new investigators into the field of autism research, or to allow investigators to collect preliminary data to show plausibility of an innovative area of exploration. These field-building grants support data collection that then might lead to a larger grant for more expansive and in-depth analysis. Autism Speaks Pilot Studies provide funding of up to $60,000 per year for a maximum of two years.
Fifteen pilot awards, totaling $1.8 million, have been approved. Three aim to collect epidemiological data that will allow the identification of targets for future research. The first (PI: Kim) will build on an existing Autism Speaks-funded study in South Korea to address the question of changes in international autism prevalence over time. A second (PI: Ascherio) will make use of a large NIH-sponsored database (the Nurse's Health Study II) to determine the impact of maternal factors, such as obstetric complications and diet, on autism risk. The third (PI: Sourander) will make use of a national Finnish database to collect data on both environmental and genetic risk factors for autism and to search for biomarkers. Another pilot study of interest (PI: Chauhan) will attempt to identify biochemical differences in autistic individuals that may account for the previous observations that oxidative stress, inflammation and aberrant immune response may be present in some individuals with autism.
Basic and Clinical Grants: In an effort to further develop research in areas of considerable interest, Autism Speaks has launched a new funding mechanism called Basic and Clinical Grants. Research proposals of this type cover a broad range of topics, with the goal of more accurately revealing and defining, quantitatively and qualitatively, all aspects of autism. Providing an opportunity to pursue leads that have shown promise in pilot studies, these grants offer researchers larger commitments over a longer time period. As such, Autism Speaks Basic and Clinical Grants provide funding of up to $150,000 per year for a maximum of three years.
Twenty-seven basic and clinical research grants, with a commitment exceeding $11.5 million, were awarded in this category. Complementing the pilot study on oxidative stress and immune response, two projects will examine the role of the immune system in autism (PI: McAllister, Rall). Several genetic studies will be pursued, including the feasibility of blood test screens for autism using gene expression (PI: Kunkel, Sharp). Additional genetic studies include an in-depth study of the potential involvement of a gene (neurexin) required for the formation of synapses and cell communication in the brain (PI: Gusella) and a screen to identify susceptibility genes for the regressive form of autism (PI: Molloy). A project to develop widely-used autism diagnostic tests in Mandarin Chinese (PI: Lee) will help to further standardize diagnostic measures internationally and thereby promote autism research in Chinese-speaking countries and allow assessment of disease prevalence in other countries. Finally, several research studies will utilize animal models, including one (PI: Zador) that will employ a rodent model of the deficits in neural circuitry that result from mutations in various candidate autism genes, which may have very different immediate effects but end with the same physiological dysfunction (i.e., autism).
Treatment Grants: Most importantly, these grants address the urgent need to develop effective therapies to treat both the core and domain-specific features of autism for those living with the disorder today. Grants of this type support research focused on all aspects of treatment, from behavioral to biomedical and technological. Autism Speaks Treatment Grants provide funding of up to $60,000 for a maximum of three years. Ten grants, totaling almost $2 million, were approved for treatment research.
The treatment therapies to be tested are both pharmacological and behavioral. Two pharmacological studies include placebo-controlled drug trials; one, with melatonin (PI: Glaze) is mentioned below, and another (PI: Arnold), with a nicotinic antagonist called mecamylamine, which has shown some promise in Tourette's syndrome and ADHD, will be studied for efficacy in individuals in autism. Another treatment grant involves the use of transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), a non-invasive way to modulate brain activity, to improve motor symptoms (PI: Sporn). Behavioral/educational intervention studies include a language intervention (PI: Volkmar), a sensory integration treatment (PI: Pfeiffer), joint attention training (PI: Wong), and various social interventions. One particularly intriguing study (PI: Wang) involves the use of brain imaging in addition to social function measures to demonstrate efficacy of the intervention. Another extremely innovative project (PI: Sarkar) will incorporate virtual reality technology to manipulate the social environment and utilize signal detection technology to measure physiological signs of subjects' reactions to the various social situations as they are presented.
Of note, three projects (two Basic and Clinical Grants and one Treatment Grant) are led by clinical investigators associated with Autism Speaks' Autism Treatment Network (ATN), the goal of which is to develop standardized medical care for autism. These projects include: a study to develop effective diagnostic screening methods for gastrointestinal (GI) dysfunction in children with autism and to determine whether uncomfortable or painful GI conditions in children with ASD are related to the expression of problem behaviors (PI: Winter); a study to develop a measure of parent and child quality of life that will improve outcome assessment of clinical trials (PI: Kuhlthau); and a controlled clinical trial of melatonin (PI: Glaze) to treat sleep problems and in turn to see how this may improve behavior.
Overall, the 52 grants are linked by some common themes. Along with the ten grants devoted to treatment studies, there are: 11 grants pertaining to determining the etiology, or causes, of autism -- i.e., studies of genetic factors, environmental factors and epidemiology; 26 grants pertaining to gaining an understanding of the underlying pathobiology of autism -- i.e., studies utilizing cell biology, molecular genetics, immunology, brain imaging, and basic neuroscience, including post mortem brain studies and animal models of autism features; and 6 grants pertaining to methods of better diagnosis of autism or associated dysfunction.
Importantly, these funded projects represent a diverse group of methods and topics so that multiple aspects of ASD will be studied. “Autism Speaks would like to congratulate the investigators of these studies,” said Dr. Gary Goldstein, chair of the Autism Speaks Scientific Advisory Council. “I am pleased we were able to fund several areas of research that have not received as much attention, such as international epidemiology and also the study of medical conditions potentially associated with autism, such as GI and immune system dysfunction. At the same time, we would also like to continue to encourage and fund more research in areas not well-represented in this year's submissions, such as studies focusing on biomarkers, or on a diverse range of environmental factors and how they interact with genetic susceptibilities. In the coming months, Autism Speaks will offer workshops for scientists to review grant writing procedures and encourage more applications.” The research enabled by these grants promises to yield a better understanding of all the features of autism, in order to help affected individuals and their families.
Lay abstracts of grants funded in this cycle can be found here on the Autism Speaks web site. To learn more about the process by which grant decisions are made, go to http://www.autismspeaks.org/science/research/grants_program.php.
Autism is a complex brain disorder that inhibits a person's ability to communicate and develop social relationships, and is often accompanied by extreme behavioral challenges. Autism Spectrum Disorders are diagnosed in one in 150 children in the United States, affecting four times as many boys as girls. The diagnosis of autism has increased tenfold in the last decade. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have called autism a national public health crisis whose cause and cure remain unknown.
ABOUT AUTISM SPEAKS
Autism Speaks is dedicated to increasing awareness of autism spectrum disorders, to funding research into the causes, prevention, treatments and cure for autism, and to advocating for the needs of affected families. It was founded in February 2005 by Suzanne and Bob Wright, the grandparents of a child with autism. Bob Wright is Vice Chairman, General Electric, and served as chief executive officer of NBC for more than twenty years. Autism Speaks has merged with both the National Alliance for Autism Research (NAAR) and Cure Autism Now (CAN), bringing together the nation's three leading autism advocacy organizations. To learn more about Autism Speaks, please visit www.autismspeaks.org.