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Rutgers Investigator Earns NIH Grant

Linda Brzustowicz, M.D., a genetics researcher from Rutgers University, recently leveraged data obtained in a NAAR-funded pilot study to earned a $3.7 million grant from the National Institutes of Health focusing on autism.

Dr. Brzustowicz's five-year grant is from the National Institute of Mental Health and focuses on identifiying autism susceptibility genes, or the genes believed to be associated with the etiology of autism spectrum disorders. In 2001, she and colleague Christopher Bartlett received a two-year award for $89,606 for the study, "Localization of Genes Negatively Influencing Language Acquisition." Dr. Brzustowicz said her NAAR grant was helpful in obtaining the larger grant she recently received from the NIH.

The Oct. 16th edition of the Home News & Tribune newspaper of East Brunswick, NJ filed the story below on Dr. Brzustowicz's award.

Rutgers researcher given autism grant

By APARNA NARAYANAN, HEALTH WRITER

NEW BRUNSWICK: A Rutgers University researcher has received a $3.7 million federal grant to investigate the genetic basis of autism.

"The ultimate aim is to identify genes and gene variants that increase a person's susceptibility to autism or related developmental disorders," said Dr. Linda Brzustowicz, an associate professor of genetics, who was recently notified about the five-year grant from the National Institute of Mental Health.

Autism is a complex brain disorder that is characterized by deficits in language and communication, problems with social interaction, and unusual or repetitive behaviors. It is a "spectrum disorder," which means the impact on functioning among those affected can range from mild to severe.

The causes of autism are unknown, but scientists believe autism is caused by the interaction of multiple genes, with a likely overlap of environmental factors.

Brzustowicz said her study would try "to chip away at the part we're good at, which is to find genes for psychiatric illnesses." Identifying the genes that cause autism, or susceptibility to the disorders, could result in both "better therapeutic agents" and understanding of "how those genes make you susceptible to environmental factors," Brzustowicz said.

Her study will recruit, assess and study 150 New Jersey families that have autistic members as well as nonautistic members who exhibit traits associated with the disorder, such as problems with language. Using blood samples, researchers will seek "to identify patterns in the sequence of DNAs transmitted within the family that are associated with who has or doesn't have autism," Brzustowicz said.

Researchers will "look at the entire genome to figure out what it is that people with autism have in common in terms of the genes that they have inherited," she added.

Brzustowicz said she has a particular interest in "the language aspect of autism." Her interest in this particular area stemmed from previous research on language delays.

In an earlier study, Brzustowicz and her colleagues were able "to identify a location in the genome that seems to harbor a susceptibility gene" for language delays. She explained other researchers had "found this exact same location as being significantly involved in autism."

Research will be conducted by a core group of about five Rutgers faculty and post-doctoral fellows, faculty at the New Jersey Medical School in Newark, and about 15 certified psychologists and speech and language experts, she said.

Brzustowicz already has contacted autism treatment centers in New Jersey to seek their help in enlisting families affected by autism. Autism prevalence rates have increased tenfold since the 1980s. The number of autistic children in New Jersey rose from 1,042 in 1994 to 3,984 in 2001, according to the state Department of Education.

The National Institutes of Health has made the search for an autism gene one of its top priorities: It spent $22 million on autism research in 1997 and $65 million in 2002 -- an increase of close to 300 percent.

Joe Guzzardo, a spokesman for the Princeton-based National Alliance for Autism Research, described the NIH grant for Brzustowicz as "a victory for the autism community."

In 2001, NAAR gave the Rutgers researcher a $89,600 grant to study the genetics of autism.

"It's very encouraging that someone we've supported has been able secure a larger grant from the NIH," Guzzardo said.

Rep. Chris Smith, R-4th Dist., welcomed news of the grant for Brzustowicz.

"This initiative will complement several on going projects that have helped make New Jersey a leader in autism research," said Smith, who is co-chairman of the Congressional Coalition for Autism Research and Education and who urged the NIH to fund Brzustowicz's project.