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Autism Speaks Awards $4.8 Million in New Research Grants

January 03, 2013

Autism Speaks is pleased to announce $4.8 million in funding for 14 new research projects. They include two environmental science grants, two innovative small business grants, six basic and clinical research projects and four targeted research awards.

“With this latest round of grants, Autism Speaks is funding a wide scope of studies ranging from basic research to innovative technologies to understanding autism across the lifespan,” says Autism Speaks Chief Science Officer Geri Dawson, Ph.D. “We extend our deep thanks to the donors who make this possible and to the scientists who are our partners in this work.”

To date, Autism Speaks has committed more than $195 million for research projects that advance understanding of the causes, prevention and treatment of autism spectrum disorders (ASD). The latest round of grants, chosen from 136 proposals, includes the following:

(Click on the hyperlinks for full project descriptions.)

Environmental Science Grants

Lisa Croen, Ph.D., of the Kaiser Permanente Division of Research in Oakland, Calif., will use prenatal blood to identify associations between genetic mutations of the MET receptor and autism risk factors associated with air pollution. The project will also deepen understanding of the role of the immune system in this gene-environment interaction.

Craig Newschaffer, Ph.D., of Drexel University, will study the association between autism risk and prenatal exposure to flame-retardant chemicals. Dr. Newschaffer’s team will use information from their Early Autism Risk Longitudinal Investigation (EARLI) Study. These findings will inform further studies that identify practical steps that can reduce exposure in ways that may reduce the risk for ASD.

Innovative Small Business Grants

Melissa DeRosier, Ph.D., of the 3-C Institute for Social Development, will develop and test a web-based education tool designed to help students with autism succeed in college. This program has the potential to help students and their parents gain the skills needed to meet the personal, social and academic challenges of the transition to college life. Ronald Oberleitner, of Behavior Imaging Solutions, is developing a web-based “telehealth” system to improve medication management via the Internet for those with ASD. Through this system, a family can securely share videos of behavior and health information from their home. This project will also include a technology platform for other review tools with integrated access to personal health records. It promises particular value for families in locations remote from major medical centers.

Basic and Clinical Research Grants

Christina Gross, Ph.D., of Emory University, will conduct a pilot study to examine the mechanisms underlying brain dysfunction in ASD. Using a mouse model, she will test whether a drug can correct the production of ribosomal protein S6. Normalizing production of this protein may be a therapeutic target for treatment of fragile X syndrome and a subgroup of those with autism.

James Gusella, Ph.D., of Massachusetts General Hospital, will examine how clusters of autism-associated genetic mutations influence shared brain pathways. Prior research suggests that many autism-linked genes influence one or more shared brain pathways. If so, effective treatments could be targeted to these shared processes. Such an approach could deliver more effective and broad-based  treatments than individualized, gene-targeted treatments.

Edward Quadros, Ph.D., of the State University of New York, Downstate Medical Center, will explore how folate influences fetal brain development and autism risk. He will also explore folinic acid administration as a possible treatment for individuals with ASD and cerebral folate deficiency.

Brent Williams, Ph.D., of Columbia University, will explore the role that disturbed intestinal microflora and viruses may play in autism and associated GI problems. As part of the study, he will examine gene pathways involved in inflammation. The study aims to enhance understanding of gene-environment interactions in children with autism and GI disturbances. Its additional goal is to provide a scientific basis for assessing the effectiveness of exclusion diets, antibiotics and probiotics for GI problems in autism.

Laura Klinger, Ph.D., of the University of North Carolina, will conduct a landmark 40-year follow-up study of individuals served by the TEACCH Autism Program. (More information on TEACCH here.) This represents a unique opportunity to study outcomes in older adults with ASD. The results have the potential to influence legislative and community service decisions that affect adults with ASD.

Sally Ozonoff, Ph.D., of University of California, at Davis, will develop a simple video-based method that parents can use to assess ASD risk in infants and toddlers. The project will validate the use of video examples of typical and atypical behavior to help parents identify early signs of ASD. In collaboration with a company that develops software for families of children with autism, the researchers will create a secure website. There, parents can view video and rate similarities to their infant’s behaviors. The goal is to enhance early screening, diagnosis and access to early intervention services.

Targeted Research Awards

In a three-site consortium, Jacqueline Crawley, Ph.D., of the University of California at Davis, Rich Paylor, Ph.D., of Baylor College of Medicine, and Mustafa Sahin, M.D., Ph.D., of Boston’s Children’s Hospital, will use rodent models of ASD to identify effective pharmacological treatments of core symptoms. Researchers will assess pharmacological compounds for their ability to restore normal sociability and communication skills, reduce repetitive behaviors, lessen seizures and anxious behaviors, correct abnormal responses to stimuli and improve cognitive disabilities.

The Interactive Autism Network (IAN), directed by Paul Law, M.D., at the Kennedy Krieger Institute, provides valuable services to the research community. IAN assists with recruiting families and data distribution, while also educating the general public about ASD and the importance of participating in autism research. Autism Speaks will provide continued financial support for IAN’s core activities.

Joseph Piven, M.D., of the University of North Carolina, and colleagues will collect brain electroencephalographic (EEG) information on infants to determine whether EEG can be used to predict the early detection of autism. This funded project will complement the team’s ongoing IBIS study of the brain and behavior development of infants at high risk of developing autism. Researchers also hope to gain a fuller understanding of brain-behavior relationships during the critically important period of infant brain development.

Shekhar Saxena, Ph.D., of the World Health Organization (WHO), will direct a project in collaboration with Autism Speaks to expand and enhance autism services at existing healthcare facilities and care-providers in underserved countries. This three-year collaboration will support field trials of instructional programs for clinicians designed to enhance the diagnosis and treatment of autism.

To find out more about these and other studies funded by Autism Speaks, please explore our Research Grants Search. This research is made possible by the generosity and passion of Autism Speaks’ community of families, donors and volunteers.