NEW YORK, N.Y. (March 18, 2014) – Autism Speaks, the world’s leading autism science and advocacy organization, today announced the sixth class of The Dennis Weatherstone Predoctoral Fellows funded by the Stavros Niarchos Foundation. Nine Fellows will be awarded more than $530,000 combined in research grants over the next two years. The fellowship program focuses on developing rising talent within the autism research community.
The Dennis Weatherstone Predoctoral Fellowship was established in 2008 in memory of Sir Dennis Weatherstone, the former Chairman and CEO of J.P. Morgan . The program honors his family’s enduring commitment to the education of promising scientists beginning careers in autism research. Fellows will work directly with mentors who are leading investigators in the autism field.
“We thank the Stavros Niarchos Foundation and the Weatherstone family for this tremendous investment in the future of autism research," says Autism Speaks Chief Science Officer Rob Ring. “The Autism Speaks Weatherstone program builds careers as it supports research that advances our understanding, prevention and treatment of autism.”
This year’s class of nine fellows was selected from a particularly diverse and strong field of candidates, adds Ed Clayton, Autism Speaks senior director for strategic funding and grants administration. This class also stands out in the impressive quality of its mentors, all of whom rank at the top of their field, Dr. Clayton says.
The 2014 Class of Weatherstone Predoctoral Fellows includes:
- Aslihan Dincer (Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai) will examine histone methylation patterns in genetic material from postmortem brain tissue. This has the potential to significantly enhance our understanding of the role that this epigenetic control mechanism plays in the brain biology of autism. Neurobiologist Schahram Akbarian, a pioneer in the field of autism epigenetics, will serve as Dincer’s mentor.
- Emma Strong (University of Toronto) will investigate the role of DNA methylation in the development of Williams syndrome and 7q11.23 duplication syndrome – two genetic causes of autism. She will be testing the hypothesis that deletion or duplication of the genes involved in these syndromes alters epigenetic control of gene activity in ways that produce autism symptoms. This work has the potential to identify new pathways involved in the development of autism and could be a first step toward tailored treatments. Strong will work in the laboratory of developmental geneticist Lucy Osborne.
- Laura Sciarra (Brown University) will investigate endosomal sodium-proton exchangers – a cellular mechanism newly implicated in autism. This cellular pathway may contribute to problematic connections between brain nerve cells. As such, it may prove to be an important new treatment target. Sciarra’s mentor, Eric Morrow, is at the forefront of developing genetic methods that improve the diagnosis and treatment of autism.
- Rebecca Burger-Caplan (Emory University) will examine how a baby’s early attention to a speaker’s mouth relates to the development of language. Her research will include both typically developing babies and those with autism. This research has the potential to identify a new early marker of language delay and associated autism risk. It could also lead to new methods for improving language abilities in infants and toddlers with autism. Burger-Caplan’s mentors, Ami Klin and Warren Jones, are known for using eye-tracking technology to study the earliest known signs of autism. (Read more about their research here.)
- Steven Klein (University of California, Los Angeles) will search for genetic changes associated with autism in children who have enlarged head size, or macrocephaly. This has the potential to advance understanding of this autism subtype in ways that improve early identification and treatment. Klein will work in the laboratory of medical geneticist and developmental biologist Julian Martinez.
- Li Wang (Baylor College of Medicine) will identify the critical cell enzymes (kinases) that control the stability of the Shank3 protein. Research has implicated decreased levels of Shank3 with intellectual, language and social problems in individuals with autism. This work could guide the development of new medicines that may relieve autism symptoms by increasing Shank3 levels. Wang will work under the mentorship of pediatric neurologist Huda Zoghbi, whose Baylor laboratory is advancing understanding of the genes involved in brain development.
- Melissa Maye (University of Massachusetts, Boston) will develop and field test a manual designed to help early-education teachers adapt their methods to meet the needs of toddlers diagnosed with autism. Maye’s mentors include Alice Carter and Angela Stone-MacDonald, leaders in the development of inclusive early education training programs.
- Rebecca Klar (Vanderbilt University) will investigate a possible drug target (the metabotropic glutamate receptor 7) for relieving the autism symptoms associated with Rett Syndrome. She will do so using a mouse model of Rett Syndrome – an early but crucial step in determining promising new directions for medicine development. At Vanderbilt, Klar will work in the research group of Jeff Conn, who is advancing understanding of brain-circuit signaling in neurological disorders.
- Sarah Slocum (University of Florida) will evaluate and compare two emergency interventions – instructional fading and differential positive reinforcement – for the safe and immediate suppression of dangerous escape behaviors in individuals with autism. Slocum’s mentor, psychologist Timothy Vollmer, is a leading researcher in the area of applied behavior analysis with an emphasis in development disabilities and parenting.
To engender a network of collaboration, the Weatherstone Fellowship program will include group interaction among fellows and opportunities to meet with the Weatherstone family and the Stavros Niarchos Foundation. The sixth annual luncheon will take place in the fall in New York City to honor the 2014 class of Fellows and the memory of Sir Dennis Weatherstone. Through the Weatherstone Fellowship program each of the Fellows will develop a network of promising science practitioners by sharing their knowledge and experiences with each other and future Weatherstone Fellows to continue the progression of autism research for years to come.
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 one 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 nearly $200 million to research and developing innovative resources for families. Each year Walk Now for Autism Speaks events are held in more than 100 cities across North America. On the global front, Autism Speaks has established partnerships in more than 40 countries on five continents to foster international research, services and awareness. To learn more about Autism Speaks, please visit AutismSpeaks.org.