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Weatherstone Fellowship Research is Published as Autism Speaks Announces the 2011 Class of Weatherstone Fellows

Novel Biological Mouse Model Findings Are Published In Journal Cell

NEW YORK, N.Y. (June 30, 2011) – Autism Speaks Weatherstone Pre-Doctoral Fellows M. Ali Bangash, a 2009 fellow, and Mehreen Kouser, a 2010 fellow, recently published new findings in the journal Cell that shed light on the biology of autism. Their research is based on a mouse model that mimics a human mutation of a gene that is known to be associated with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), known as SHANK3. Mutations of this gene have recently been implicated in a subset of individuals with autism “Enhanced Polyubiquitination of Shank3 and NMDA Receptor in a Mouse Model of Autism” details a new SHANK3 mutant mouse and demonstrates how this autism-associated gene affects brain functioning. Examining the genetic causes of autism, Bangash worked with mentor Paul Worley, M.D. of Johns Hopkins University, and Kouser worked with mentor Craig Powell at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas to refine a mouse model to study the gene SHANK3 and investigate its implications for autism. Their work specifically shows that the gene is involved in how neurons communicate at synapses. When this gene mutation was recreated in a mouse, the animals had significant changes in a neurotransmitter, glutamate, which regulates communication between neurons in the brain and results in behavioral deficits consistent with symptoms of autism.

“This is significant published research from our Weatherstone Fellows portfolio. We are pleased to see the fruits of their efforts so soon, and the exceptional caliber of this work is representative of the excellence in this group of scientists who are pursuing the next generation of autism research,” said Geraldine Dawson, Ph.D., chief science officer for Autism Speaks.

Cheryl Weatherstone Vance recently told a gathering of Weatherstone fellows, “My father, along with the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, wanted the brightest minds in the country to find answers to the mysteries of autism. You are on an incredible journey as your research will benefit countless lives. It is exciting to see the progress you have made already. All of you are presented with a great challenge and I am honored that you have chosen autism as your field of research. It is through your work that I can have hope that there will be a cure for every child and their families who are affected by autism.”

Autism Speaks is pleased to announce the 2011 Class of Dennis Weatherstone Pre-Doctoral Fellows. These eight fellows were selected out of 50 proposals from a highly qualified and enthusiastic field of candidates. Projects were selected for funding based on the strengths of the training plan, research strategy, mentor’s qualifications and the relevance of the topic to Autism Speaks’ research priority areas.

Behavioral Neuroscience is the focus of Cara Damiano, working with mentor Gabriel Dichter at University of North Carolina on Behavioral and Neural Correlates of Reward Motivation and Jillian Filliter working with Shannon Johnson at Dalhousie University will study Preference Acquisition in Children and Adolescents.

Identifying subtypes of autism is the focus of Rui Luo working with Daniel Geschwind at University of California Los Angeles on Genome-wide Expression Profiling Data Analysis and Nir Oksenberg working with mentor Nadav Ahituv at University of California San Francisco on Deciphering the Function and Regulation of AUTS2.

Dissemination of best practices, a strategic goal of Autism Speaks, will be advanced through the work of Frances Martinez-Pedraza who will work with mentor Alice Carter at University of Massachussets on Dissembination of Screening to Underserved Culturally-Diverse Families and at Michigan State University, fellow Allison Wainer will work with mentor Brook Ingersoll on Internet-based Program to Teach Naturalistic Intervention to Parents.

Kristopher Nazor will work in developmental biology on Stem Cell Platform for Identification of Defects with mentor Jeanne Loring at Scripps Research Institute. Using stem cells created from skin tissue to create neurons and understand the biological basis of autism will be the focus of Sean Johnston at University of Wisconsin Madison under mentor Ronald Raines.

Made possible by a multi-year grant from the Stavros Niarchos Foundation named in honor of former J.P. Morgan CEO Sir Dennis Weatherstone. The fellowship awards provide highly qualified candidates with exceptional research training opportunities across various areas related to the study of ASD. Autism Speaks established this fellowship program in 2008 to encourage the most promising young scientists to establish autism research as their chosen career path and support the growth of a promising cadre of young autism scientists. The Weatherstone fellow abstracts are found on Autism Speaks new Science Grant Search function at http://www.autismspeaks.org/science/grant-search.

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, and one in 70 boys. The prevalence of autism has increased 600 percent in the past two decades. 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 $272 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 26 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, EMI Group Global Ltd. 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 Divisionand 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. 

About Stavros Niarchos Foundation
The Stavros Niarchos Foundation is a major international philanthropic organization established by the family of the late Stavros Niarchos. Mr. Niarchos, born and raised in Greece, was best known for his successful ship building and shipping enterprises, although he was active in a wide range of business activities. For years he was known to have the largest private fleet in the world, with more than eighty super tankers. The Stavros Niarchos Foundation, founded in 1996, supports charitable activities in four primary areas: arts and culture; education; health and medicine; and social welfare. Special attention is given to programs for children and the elderly. Since its inception, the Stavros Niarchos Foundation has provided total grant commitments of $1,165,000,000 through more than 1,800 grants to not-for-profit organizations in 90 nations around the world.To learn more about the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, please visit www.snf.org