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Autism Speaks Awards More Than $500,000 in New Research Grants

March 21, 2013

Ground-breaking projects include Trailblazer study on autoimmunity and autism and seven career-launching Weatherstone fellowships

Autism Speaks is pleased to announce over $500,000 in funding for new research that will advance understanding and treatment of autism spectrum disorders (ASD). The new funding includes a Suzanne and Bob Wright Trailblazer Award, seven Weatherstone Predoctoral Fellowships and a targeted research grant.

“These awards will open new directions in the development of more effective treatments for autism and help nurture young scientists who are interested in entering into the field of autism research,” says Autism Speaks Chief Science Officer Geri Dawson, Ph.D.

Suzanne and Bob Wright Trailblazer Award

Autism Speaks created the Trailblazer award to fund novel “out of the box” research with the potential to transform the field of autism research. The newest Trailblazer project will explore possible links between autism and a disorder known as pediatric autoimmune neuropsychiatric disorder associated with streptococci (PANDAS). PANDAS is an autoimmune disorder that involves production of autoantibodies that attack the brain’s nerve cells, or neurons. This can produce the sudden onset of anxiety and obsessive-compulsive behaviors, or tics. 

Trailblazer award recipient Madeleine W. Cunningham, Ph.D., of the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center, is a leading expert on PANDAS. In previous research, she identified PANDAS autoantibodies that affect brain cell communication. As part of her Trailblazer study, she will assess whether some children with autism have these autoantibodies in their blood. Her findings may help identify individuals with autism who could benefit from the immunotherapies used to treat PANDAS.

2013 Weatherstone Projects

In 2009 Autism Speaks established the Dennis Weatherstone Predoctoral Fellowships with a generous grant from the Stavros Niarchos Foundation. The program honors the late financier Dennis Weatherstone and his enduring commitment to the education of promising young scientists interested in devoting their careers to autism research. This year’s recipients will pursue their two-year research projects under the mentorship of leading autism scientists. They include:

  • Eyal Ben-David (Hebrew University) will study biomarkers with the potential to identify different types of autism. He is focusing on gene networks involved in gene expression and the prevention of DNA damage.
  • Abigail Hogan-Brown (Northwestern University) will look at how variations in expression of a gene protein (FMRP) affect over-arousal and language ability in children with autism and Fragile X syndrome.
  • Helen Wong (New York University) will study an immune molecule that may provide clues to protecting the developing fetal brain from the harmful effects of maternal infection during pregnancy. Her research focuses on RORgt, a transcription factor that activates infection-fighting immune cells. Her research also promises to advance understanding of how maternal infection during pregnancy increases the risk of autism.
  • Lauren Bishop-Fitzpatrick (University of Pittsburgh) will examine how stress (as measured by cortisol and heart rate activity) affects the ability of adults with autism to adapt to change in their everyday lives.
  • Whitney Guthrie (Florida State University) will study how well a parent-implemented intervention for toddlers (18 to 36 months) improves function and quality of life for children at ages 5 to 7.
  • Alison Singer (Johns Hopkins University) will track parents’ work-related exposure to asthma-provoking chemicals during pregnancy. The goal is to determine how the inflammation of an asthmatic reaction in the mother may affect prenatal brain development and autism risk.
  • Avery Voos (University of California, Santa Barbara) will examine whether early intervention in the form of pivotal response training (PRT) can produce positive changes in brain activity in children with autism.

Targeted Research Grant
Autism Speaks uses targeted research grants to rapidly address specific needs in the field of autism research. It is pleased to announce that The Canadian Institutes of Health Research has named Jonathan Weiss, Ph.D., of York University, Toronto, Canada, to the research chair of its newly created Autism Spectrum Disorders Treatment and Care Research Program. Dr. Weiss’ work addresses the mental health needs of people with autism across the lifespan.  Autism Speaks Canada is partnering with the Canadian Autism Spectrum Disorders Alliance, NeuroDevNet and the Sinneave Family Foundation to co-fund this 10-year research position.

Dedicated to improving the lives of those with autism, these projects are made possible by the generosity and passion of Autism Speaks’ community of families, donors and volunteers. Explore more of the research and services funded by Autism Speaks using this website’s Grant Search.