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Introducing Rob Ring, Autism Speaks’ New Chief Science Officer

June 15, 2013

Tell us a little about yourself. What do you bring to this new position that members of the autism community should know? 

I am so excited about the opportunities presented by my new role. I am a neuroscientist by training and have spent the majority of my life and career as a researcher working to develop medical products that improve the quality of health and life for individuals with disorders that affect the brain. As CSO, I will be laser-focused on putting science to work for our community, and I have a fairly simple philosophy about discovery: Remain agnostic about the source of good ideas, but religious about data. I believe that there should be no stone unturned in the pursuit of ideas that can be translated through science for patient benefit, that there is no idea too "out there" to consider as long as you remain committed to delivering the evidence that it is safe and it really works.

Now that you've been named Chief Science Officer what are your first goals in your new position?

My primary focus early on will be on reshaping our science portfolio of programs, projects and initiatives to best deliver the organization’s increasingly strategic focus on translation. By translation, I really mean putting science to work for our families. In this time of transition, I have a real opportunity to work with an incredibly dedicated and talented staff to start evolving our existing assets as a department toward a more focused mission on delivery. In the near term, I also want to focus our energies on some of the low hanging fruit in science and technology, discoveries that could be brought to the community in the here and now, without losing sight of the long term payoffs of investing in big science.

Do you think there is a real chance we're going to see some progress for certain people in the not so distant future?

Absolutely. It has been breathtaking to watch the pace of scientific discovery emerging from the autism research world. It has also been incredible to see new innovations created as these discoveries converge with a larger world and seemingly unrelated areas of technology and research. From my perspective, we are on the verge of a revolution in new product development, a revolution that will really put science to work for the community in the form of urgently needed therapeutics, diagnostics and assistive technologies. Autism Speaks is in a natural position to direct and catalyze the work of those who are needed to bring these products to the market. Being in this position today, in many ways, represents a return on the investment in basic research, which Autism Speaks has been providing for years. As CSO, I see the science mission evolving to begin focusing on ensuring that the research and development activity driving this new product landscape creates transformative value for our community. To ensure that the applications of science and technology are being targeted toward the most urgent, unmet needs of our families. I believe the future looks bright and that our foundation will continue to play an important role in shaping it.

The clinical trials of the drug arbaclofen have been discontinued, despite the fact that some families have seen real progress with the drug. Where does Autism Speaks stand on the effectiveness of the drug?

Although arbaclofen failed to demonstrate effects on a primary measurement of clinical benefit, analysis of secondary measures suggests unanticipated effects on different measures of social benefit. In other words, Seaside may have been looking at the wrong thing when measuring whether of not arbaclofen worked in the autism trial. So, I think the story is not over, and there is a path forward for arbaclofen, one that warrants closer examination in a follow-up trial.

Do you agree with the decision to pull it?

Yes, this was an unfortunate business decision and one that I am sure broke the hearts of everyone in that organization as much as it did the community. It is important that we recognize what an incredible partner Seaside has been for this community. They have pioneered a brave path forward to bring needed therapeutics to our community when so many other companies wouldn’t. Even if arbaclofen doesn’t make it to market (and by the way, I don’t think the arbaclofen story is over), they have shown "you can do it!" to an industry that had been sitting on the sidelines. You can bet others will now follow. In the future, when we do have medicines that treat autism, history will acknowledge their pioneering efforts. Someone always has to go first. Someone has to take the initial risks, take the early hits in any effort of real human significance. This is true if we are really going to put the science to work for our community. This is why we decided to stand shoulder to shoulder with Seaside in our recent investment through DELSIA. Not every shot will reach its target, but we will never succeed unless we take some risks.

Arbaclofen is one more example of hopes rising and failing for family's in the autism community. As Autism Speaks' new chief science officer, how can you convince them that there's reason to keep their hopes up?

Just look at how much has changed in the past 8 years since Autism Speaks was formed. Through our investments and leadership, we have helped take the field of basic autism research from the backwaters of medical science to a feature place in the world of research. Just as autism dominates the headlines of newspapers and websites, discoveries in autism research are dominating the covers of the world's most prestigious scientific journals. The brightest of the field’s young and established scientists are coming into our field of research. Companies like Seaside are entering into the business of providing products for our community in a way that just didn’t exist 10 years ago. In this, we are embarking on a major shift across the field, a movement toward translation, the process of actually bringing the science to the community. This is the next chapter, the one that everyone should be hopeful for.

What work has Autism Speaks been doing that you feel holds the most promise for those who have autism?

It is impossible to nail down one single area of work that holds the most promise given the diverse range of activities we are tackling, all of which can benefit our community. In the area of science, I see our investments in genetic and biomarker discovery as holding the greatest promise for delivering meaningful improvements in the way we diagnose, treat and educate individuals with autism.

Are there any personal things you would like to share?

I am blessed to have an amazing wife who has stood by my side through my journey as a scientist, researcher and now my current role here at Autism Speaks. I am also the proud father of two young children, Jasper and Ella, and I just love my time with them at night and on weekends playing Legos, every sport imaginable, and princess games. I am passionate about sports and art. Believe it or not, I actually started my career, before science, as a professional artist.

Thank you Dr Ring, congratulations and great luck on behalf of all of us.