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Autism Speaks Grants more than $1.3 Million for Scientific Research

Programs Include Two Suzanne and Bob Wright Trailblazer Grants as Well as Funding for the Autism Genome Project's Phase 3 and the Interactive Autism Network

New York, N.Y. (April 14, 2011) – Autism Speaks, North America's largest autism science and advocacy organization, today announced the awarding of grants and funding for four projects. The Suzanne and Bob Wright Trailblazer Awards started in 2010 and grants are dedicated to highly novel “out of the box” autism-relevant research that has the potential to open new avenues to understanding ASD. In 2011, Autism Speaks awarded Gary Bassell, Ph.D., of Emory University a Trailblazer to develop assays that will identify molecular and cellular dysfunctions in the PI3K/mTOR pathway – a mechanism that has been implicated in ASD etiology. If these assays are successfully developed, a simple blood test could be used to identify individuals who could benefit most from specific PI3K/mTOR targeted therapies. In addition, these assays could be further used to inform drug efficacy studies. The award is for $100,000 for one year

For families and children with ASD, a major unmet need continues to be access to rigorously studied treatments, particularly for associated medical conditions. GI dysfunction is of particular concern with up to 52% of children and adolescents having GI problems as reported by parents participating in the Autism Speaks Autism Treatment Network (ATN) and IAN programs. The second Trailblazer Award entitled “Defining the Underlying Dysfunction of Children and Adolescents with ASD” was granted to Paul Ashwood, Ph.D. of the M.I.N.D. Institute of UC Davis, 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. The study aims to use a two-step approach to categorize children with autism by using specific biomarkers of gut dysbiosis and immune dysfunction that can affect gastrointestinal (GI) dysfunction, and ultimately behavior. Specifically they hypothesize that children with ASD who have GI symptoms and irregular bowel movements will have dysregulated microbiota, metabolic and immune dysfunction compared to typically developing children and also children with ASD without GI dysfunction, and that this dysfunction will affect the intestinal epithelial cell barrier. Additionally, the research team will validate these findings and further examine the biological mechanisms of this effect in an animal model as well as explore the potential treatment response to targeted bacterial intervention. The award is for $769,942 over two years. Read more about this exciting GI study.

The Autism Genome Project is the largest study ever conducted to find the genes associated with inherited risk for autism. The project is a public/private research partnership involving approximately 50 academic and research institutions that have pooled their DNA samples in a collaborative effort. It is designed to enable doctors to biologically diagnose autism and enable researchers to develop universal medical treatments and a cure. The first phase of the project consisted of two scans of the human genome searching for autism susceptibility genes from samples of nearly 1,200 families. Phase 2 expanded on the results of the first phase allowing researchers to confirm or deny the role of genes previously identified as possibly harboring autism susceptibility genes. The current AGP phase prepares for Phase 3 with collaborative core consortium scientific activities. Specifically, AGP will (1) complete additional analyses, including a collaborative effort with investigators from the Simons Simplex Collection that will pool from both datasets, (2) pilot joint analysis of CNV and sequencing data, (3) finalize research plan for the anticipated AGP Phase 3 project focusing on translation. Autism Speaks is providing $200,000 to this phase with the rest of the budget being provided by the UK Medical Research Council, Canadian Institutes for Health Research and the Hilibrand Foundation.

The Interactive Autism Network (IAN) is the nation's largest online autism research effort. This IAN project extends the approach of a High Risk-High Impact Award entitled, “Pilot Project to Assess Web-based Family Recruitment for Autism Genetic Studies” (PI: Stan Nelson, UCLA). Building on their data on verbal children with autism, the new effort plans to enhance and evaluate the accuracy of a rapid phenotyping protocol for non-verbal children with ASD. The study will use an Internet-mediated recruitment and ascertainment strategy for both verbal and non-verbal subjects and incorporates additional assessment tools, such as the Repetitive Behavior Scale and the Aberrant Behavior Checklist, that will provide additional data on behaviors associated with autism. Data collection within IAN will allow for rapid recruitment of a large number of subjects for genetics analysis at a fraction of the usual costs, thereby enhancing both efficiency and return on investment. This award is for $249,996 for one year.

See abstracts for the newly funded grants here.

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 25 states thus far, with bills pending in an additional 11 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

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.