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New NIH Grant Will Allow USC-Led Research Team to Expand Autism Speaks' Autism Genetic Resource Exchange (AGRE) Program

$8.4 Million for Research into the Genetic, Physical and Behavioral Profiles of Children with Autism

NEW YORK, NY (October 3, 2007) -- Autism Speaks today joined with the University of Southern California in announcing that a multi-institution team led by USC faculty has received a five-year, $8.4 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for an ambitious effort to survey the genetic, physical and behavioral profiles of children with autism. The grant will vastly increase the scope of the Autism Genetic Resource Exchange (AGRE), the world's largest resource for autism research. AGRE was originally developed by Cure Autism Now (CAN), which merged with Autism Speaks in February 2007.

The NIH funding will double the number of families in the AGRE database and expand the data beyond genetic and clinical profiles to include phenomics, the systematic study of the outward physical and behavioral characteristics of autism. Since its founding in 1997, AGRE has grown to include data from more than 1,500 families with multiple children who have autism.

Organized under a new Center for Genomic and Phenomic Studies in Autism at USC, the research will involve scientists at USC, AGRE, the MIND Institute at the University of California at Davis, Children's Hospital Los Angeles, the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor and the University of Massachusetts Medical School.

“This grant reaffirms the NIH's commitment to supporting AGRE as a unique resource, the largest repository of clinical and genetic information for families with multiple children with autism,” said Clara Lajonchere, PhD, Vice President of Clinical Programs for Autism Speaks, who oversees the AGRE program. “AGRE represents a paradigm shift towards large-scale collaboration and data sharing in the researcher community.” Lajonchere is research assistant professor at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering with a joint appointment in the Keck School of Medicine of USC.

AGRE's expansion will focus on recruiting a more ethnically diverse group of families, since minority families are currently underrepresented in the database. “There are few focused genetic studies that directly examine minority populations,” said Lajonchere.

“This center will be a major building block for a state-of-the-art multidisciplinary autism research program we are developing at USC,” said Steven Moldin, executive director of USC's Washington, D.C. Office of Research Advancement and co-director of the new center.

One goal of the new center, according to NIH Genomics Research Branch Chief Thomas Lehner, is to better distinguish among the many forms of autism, and to explore the differences in their genetic profiles.

“We are trying to establish a correspondence between gene and phenotype, with the phenotype being autism and its many manifestations,” Lehner said. “A unique feature of this grant is the extensiveness of phenotyping. This is one of our largest projects, if not the largest.”

Another unique aspect of the grant is a program of pilot studies to evaluate potential environmental factors in autism, such as air pollution or disease and diet during pregnancy.

“We're hoping to really fast-track some findings and the understanding of the causes and environmental factors that could possibly be implicated in autism,” Lajonchere said.

Autism is a complex brain disorder that inhibits a person's ability to communicate and develop social relationships, and is often accompanied by extreme behavioral challenges. Autism spectrum disorders are diagnosed in one in 150 children in the United States, affecting four times as many boys as girls. The diagnosis of autism has increased tenfold in the last decade. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have called autism a national public health crisis whose cause and cure remain unknown.

Autism Speaks is dedicated to increasing awareness of autism spectrum disorders, to funding research into the causes, prevention, treatments and cure for autism, and to advocating for the needs of affected families. It was founded in February 2005 by Suzanne and Bob Wright, the grandparents of a child with autism. Bob Wright is Vice Chairman, General Electric, and served as chief executive officer of NBC for more than twenty years. Autism Speaks has merged with both the National Alliance for Autism Research (NAAR) and Cure Autism Now (CAN), bringing together the nation's three leading autism advocacy organizations. To learn more about Autism Speaks, please visit