Autism Speaks Awards $770K for Gastrointestinal Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders over Two Years

UC Davis M.I.N.D. Institute, University of Maryland School of Medicine and California Institute of Technology to Explore the Underlying Biology of GI Dysfunction

New York, N.Y. (April 14, 2011) – Recognizing that gastrointestinal (GI) dysfunction affects many children and adolescents with autism spectrum disorders (ASD), Autism Speaks, the world's largest autism science and advocacy organization, today announced a major Suzanne and Bob Wright Trailblazer Award for research into the biological mechanisms of GI disorders in ASD. Paul Ashwood, Ph.D., of the M.I.N.D. Institute of UC Davis, the lead Principal Investigator and his collaborators Alessio Fasano, M.D. at University of Maryland School of Medicine, and Sarkis Mazmanian, Ph.D. and Paul Patterson, Ph.D., of the California Institute of Technology will receive $769,943 over a two year period to investigate the underlying biology of GI dysfunction in children with ASD, and in an animal model, test a novel probiotic therapy to restore function of the GI system. (Read an interview with Dr. Alessio Fasano on our blog).

Autism Speaks recently launched its Trailblazer Awards to support highly novel “out of the box” autism-relevant research. “GI problems are a common and distressing concern for many children and adolescents with ASD and their families,” explained Autism Speaks Chief Science Officer Geraldine Dawson, Ph.D. “These conditions are not only a strain on the health of the children affected, GI problems can seriously interfere with their ability to participate in and benefit from activities of daily life, education and therapeutic activities.”

"This Trailblazer award provides us with a fantastic opportunity to delve deeper to understand the mechanisms that may underlie altered GI function in some children with autism,” stated Paul Ashwood, Ph.D, Principal Investigator. “We will also explore the very exciting possibility that novel therapies could address this GI dysfunction in model systems."

Autism is behaviorally defined by impairments in communication, social interactions, and repetitive stereotypic behaviors. Many children with ASD also experience GI symptoms such as irregular bowel movements and abdominal pain. Several studies have described altered GI and immune function in children with ASD and GI symptoms. In these children the presence of GI symptoms is often associated with increased irritability, tantrums, aggressive behavior and sleep disturbance. For families and children with ASD, access to rigorously studied treatments for medical conditions associated with autism is a major unmet need. Autism Speaks Autism Treatment Network (ATN) provides experts in the care and management of GI problems for children with ASD and engages in clinical research. However, the underlying nature of GI dysfunction in ASD and its relationship to etiology and ASD symptoms are still poorly understood. This information is critical to developing better and more targeted treatments, so both clinical and basic research in this area is needed. To accelerate research and find answers for those who suffer with GI problems and ASD, Autism Speaks issued a special Request for Applications to stimulate research to systematically explore and better understand GI dysfunction in ASD. This new study brings together innovative and cutting-edge pilot projects that form a new synergistic and coordinated effort. The connections between irregular bowel movements, gut barrier function, gut bacteria, immune function, and abnormal behavior have as yet not been investigated in ASD. This Trailblazer Study will examine these potential links.

“This groundbreaking approach has the potential to provide insights into the pathophysiology of GI dysfunction in ASD that we believe can set the stage for larger scale studies and treatment applications,” explained Autism Speaks Vice President of Clinical Programs, Clara Lajonchere, Ph.D.“We have great hopes for this collaboration because each of the researchers involved is applying his GI expertise to autism research in an unprecedented way.”

About Autism
Autism is a complex neurobiological disorder that inhibits a person's ability to communicate and develop social relationships, and is often accompanied by behavioral challenges. Autism spectrum disorders are diagnosed in one in 110 children in the United States, affecting four times as many boys as girls. The prevalence of autism increased 57 percent from 2002 to 2006. 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 North America's largest autism science and advocacy organization. Since its inception in 2005, Autism Speaks has made enormous strides, committing over $160 million to research and developing innovative new resources for families. The organization 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. In addition to funding research, Autism Speaks has created resources and programs including the Autism Speaks Autism Treatment Network, Autism Speaks' Autism Genetic Resource Exchange and several other scientific and clinical programs. Notable awareness initiatives include the establishment of the annual United Nations-sanctioned World Autism Awareness Day on April 2, which Autism Speaks celebrates through its Light it Up Blue initiative. Also, Autism Speaks award-winning “Learn the Signs” campaign with the Ad Council has received over $258 million in donated media. Autism Speaks' family resources include the Autism Video Glossary, a 100 Day Kit for newly-diagnosed families, a School Community Tool Kit and a community grant program. Autism Speaks has played a critical role in securing federal legislation to advance the government's response to autism, and has successfully advocated for insurance reform to cover behavioral treatments in 24 states thus far, with bills pending in an additional 12 states. Each year Walk Now for Autism Speaks events are held in more than 80 cities across North America. To learn more about Autism Speaks, please visit www.autismspeaks.org.

About the Co-Founders
Autism Speaks was founded in February 2005 by Suzanne and Bob Wright, the grandparents of a child with autism. Bob Wright is Senior Advisor at Lee Equity Partners and Chairman and CEO of the Palm Beach Civic Association. He served as Vice Chairman of General Electric; and as the Chief Executive Officer of NBC and NBC Universal for more than twenty years. He also serves on the boards of the Polo Ralph Lauren Corporation, Mission Product, LLC and the New York Presbyterian Hospital. Suzanne Wright is a Trustee Emeritus of Sarah Lawrence College, her alma mater. Suzanne has received numerous awards, the Women of Distinction Award from Palm Beach Atlantic University, the CHILD Magazine Children's Champions Award, Luella Bennack Volunteer Award, Spirit of Achievement award by the Albert Einstein College of Medicine's National Women's Division and The Women of Vision Award from the Weizmann Institute of Science. In 2008, the Wrights were named to the Time 100 Heroes and Pioneers category, a list of the most influential people in the world, for their commitment to global autism advocacy. They have also received numerous awards such as the first ever Double Helix Award for Corporate Leadership, NYU Child Advocacy Award, Castle Connolly National Health Leadership Award and The American Ireland Fund Humanitarian Award. In May of 2010 they received Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters Degrees from St. John's University in Queens and delivered the commencement address as the first married couple to be bestowed such an honor.