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Autism Speaks Awards $4.8 Million for New Research Projects

New York, N.Y. (January 7, 2013) – Autism Speaks, the world’s leading autism science and advocacy organization, today announced the award of $4.8 million in funding for 14 new research projects. To date, Autism Speaks has committed more than $195 million for research projects that advance understanding of the causes, prevention treatment and cure of autism spectrum disorders (ASD).  

“Autism Speaks continues in its steadfast support of innovative research which has tremendous potential to increase our understanding of autism,” said Autism Speaks Co-founder Bob Wright, “and in the continuing absence of a national plan to address the needs of those who struggle with autism, these research efforts made possible by our donors are all the more crucial.”

Funded projects, selected from 136 proposals, will study gene-environment interaction, association of prenatal exposures and autism risk, brain function, and the role that disturbed intestinal bacteria and viruses may play in autism and associated gastrointestinal (GI) problems. Technology is a focus in this round of funding with research to develop a simple video-based method that parents can use to assess ASD risk in infants and toddlers, and innovative small business grants to develop and test a web-based education tool to help students with autism succeed in college and an internet-based “telehealth” system to improve medication management for individuals with autism.

“With this latest round of grants, Autism Speaks is funding a wide scope of studies ranging from basic research to innovative technologies to understanding autism across the lifespan,” says Autism Speaks Chief Science Officer Geraldine Dawson, Ph.D. “We are proud to work with the scientists who are our partners in this work.”

A new approach to funding research involves innovative small business grants, both focused on technology applications. Melissa DeRosier, Ph.D., of the 3-C Institute for Social Development, will develop and test a web-based education tool designed to help students with autism succeed in college. This program has the potential to help students and their parents gain the skills needed to meet the personal, social and academic challenges of the transition to college life. Ronald Oberleitner, of Behavior Imaging Solutions, is developing a web-based “telehealth” system to improve medication management for those with ASD. Using the internet, a family can securely share videos of behavior and health information from their home which will support their medical provider in assessing the effects of treatments. This project will also include a technology platform for other review tools with integrated access to personal health records. It promises particular value for families living a distance from major medical centers.

Two environmental epidemiology research projects were awarded to Kaiser Permanent and Drexel University.    Lisa Croen, Ph.D., of the Kaiser Permanente Division of Research in Oakland, Calif., will use prenatal blood seeking to identify associations between genetic mutations of the MET receptor and autism risk factors associated with air pollution. The project will also deepen understanding of the role of the immune system in this gene-environment interaction.  Craig Newschaffer, Ph.D., of Drexel University, will study the association between autism risk and prenatal exposure to flame-retardant chemicals. Dr. Newschaffer’s team will use information from the Autism Speaks-supported Early Autism Risk Longitudinal Investigation (EARLI) study which follows 1200 mothers from pregnancy through the new baby's first three years of life to examine a number of environmental risk factors for autism and their potential interplay with genetic factors. Findings from this latest project will inform further studies that identify practical steps that can reduce exposure in ways that may reduce the risk for ASD.

Six Basic & Clinical research grants were awarded. Technology is also the focus of a Basic & Clinical research grant awarded to Sally Ozonoff, Ph.D., of University of California, Davis, who will develop a simple video-based method that parents can use to assess ASD risk in infants and toddlers. The project will validate the use of video examples of typical and atypical behavior to help parents identify early signs of ASD. In collaboration with a company that develops software for families of children with autism, the researchers will create a secure website. There, parents can view video and rate similarities to their infant’s behaviors. The goal is to enhance early screening, diagnosis and access to early intervention services.

Christina Gross, Ph.D., of Emory University, will conduct a pilot study to examine the mechanisms underlying brain dysfunction in ASD. Using a mouse model, she will test whether a drug can correct the production of ribosomal protein S6. Normalizing production of this protein may be a therapeutic target for treatment of fragile X syndrome and a subgroup of those with autism.

James Gusella, Ph.D., of Massachusetts General Hospital, will also study brain function by examining how clusters of autism-associated genetic mutations influence shared brain pathways. Prior research suggests that many autism-linked genes influence one or more shared brain pathways. If so, effective treatments could be targeted to these shared processes. Such an approach could deliver more effective and broad-based treatments than individualized, gene-targeted treatments.

Edward Quadros, Ph.D., of the State University of New York, Downstate Medical Center, will explore how folate influences fetal brain development and autism risk. He will also explore folinic acid administration as a possible treatment for individuals with ASD and cerebral folate deficiency.

GI disturbances associated with ASD will be explored by Brent Williams, Ph.D., of Columbia University, who will study the role that disturbed intestinal bacteria and viruses may play in autism and associated GI problems. His work will also examine gene pathways involved in inflammation. The study aims to enhance understanding of gene-environment interactions in children with autism and GI disturbances. Its additional goal is to provide a scientific basis for assessing the effectiveness of exclusion diets, antibiotics and probiotics for GI problems in autism.

Laura Klinger, Ph.D., of the University of North Carolina), will conduct a landmark 40-year follow-up study of individuals served by the TEACCH Autism Program. This represents a unique opportunity to study outcomes in older adults with ASD. The results have the potential to influence legislative and community service decisions that affect adults with ASD.

Additional awards also supporting targeted research include a three-site consortium. Jacqueline Crawley, Ph.D., of the University of California at Davis, Rich Paylor, Ph.D., of Baylor College of Medicine, and Mustafa Sahin, M.D., Ph.D., of Boston’s Children’s Hospital, will use rodent models of ASD to identify effective medicinal treatments of core symptoms. Researchers will assess pharmacological compounds for their ability to restore normal sociability and communication skills, reduce repetitive behaviors, lessen seizures and anxious behaviors, correct abnormal responses to stimuli and improve cognitive disabilities.

Autism Speaks will provide funding to the Interactive Autism Network (IAN) to support their core activities. IAN, directed by Paul Law, M.D., at the Kennedy Krieger Institute, assists with recruiting families and data distribution, while also educating the general public about ASD and the importance of participating in autism research.

Joseph Piven, M.D., of the University of North Carolina, and colleagues will collect brain electroencephalographic (EEG) information on infants to determine whether EEG can be used to predict the early detection of autism. This targeted research project will complement the team’s ongoing Infant Brain Imaging Study (IBIS) study of the brain and behavior development of infants at high risk of developing autism. IBIS is supported through the NIH Autism Center of Excellence Network. Researchers also hope to gain a fuller understanding of brain-behavior relationships during the critically important period of infant brain development.

The final targeted research award to Shekhar Saxena, Ph.D., of the World Health Organization (WHO), supports a global project in collaboration with Autism Speaks to expand and enhance autism services at existing healthcare facilities and care-providers in underserved countries. This three-year collaboration will support field trials of instructional programs for clinicians designed to enhance the diagnosis and treatment of autism.

About Autism
Autism is a general term used to describe a group of complex developmental brain disorders – autism spectrum disorders – caused by a combination of genes and environmental influences. These disorders are characterized, in varying degrees, by communication difficulties, social and behavioral challenges, as well as repetitive behaviors. An estimated 1 in 88 children in the U.S. is on the autism spectrum – a 78 percent increase in six years that is only partly explained by improved diagnosis.

About Autism Speaks
Autism Speaks is the world’s leading autism science and advocacy organization. It is dedicated to funding research into the causes, prevention, treatments and a cure for autism; increasing awareness of autism spectrum disorders; and advocating for the needs of individuals with autism and their families. Autism Speaks was founded in February 2005 by Suzanne and Bob Wright, the grandparents of a child with autism. Mr. Wright is the former vice chairman of General Electric and chief executive officer of NBC and NBC Universal. Since its inception, Autism Speaks has committed over $195 million to research and developing innovative resources for families. Each year Walk Now for Autism Speaks events are held in more than 95 cities across North America. On the global front, Autism Speaks has established partnerships and related activities in over 40 countries on 5 continents to foster international research, services and awareness. To learn more about Autism Speaks, please visit AutismSpeaks.org.