Scientists from across the country gathered in Santa Monica, Calif., during the second weekend in September for Cure Autism Now's eighth annual grant review meeting. Over two days, these 39 scientific reviewers waded through 95 grant proposals (pared down from the 148 letters of intent originally submitted in the spring) applying rigorous review methods and scoring the grants to highlight those that would offer the most promising findings. On the third day, the grants that met the cutoff for scientific merit were again discussed by the Scientific Review Council, in order to prioritize the grants according to their relevance, diversity and potential contributions for finding a cure for autism.
This annual weekend is more than just a review process. It is also a celebration of the strides autism research has taken and the role Cure Autism Now has played. At a welcome dinner to thank the scientists assembled, Scientific Advisory Board (SAB) chair Pat Levitt, Ph.D., said that a "marvelous step-change" has occurred in the field of autism research, and highlighted an increasing breadth and depth to the science now being applied to understanding this disorder. Dr. Levitt celebrated the spirit of the esteemed researchers who attend this gathering, noting that they dedicate their time as volunteers because they take seriously the responsibility to keep their eye on the cure and ensure that the research they recommend for funding will be truly meaningful. He noted that clinicians and scientists talking to each other is increasingly common - as they have done for years on CAN's SAB - resulting in the multi-disciplinary thinking that will be required to fully understand and address this complex disorder.
SAB member Dan Geschwind, Ph.D., also emphasized the "enormous critical mass" that is now assembling in the field of autism, crediting Cure Autism Now with helping to create a field of research where before there was none. He indicated that as scientific findings build, so does the number of researchers. Once genes and affected pathways are identified, the next challenge is to use model systems to explore avenues that will be amenable to therapeutic interventions. The excitement about future breakthroughs in the field of autism research is evident, as in just the past few years Dr. Geschwind believes that "the progress has been amazing."
Although final grant details and contract issues are still being finalized, CAN Science Director Sophia Colamarino, Ph.D., informed the science boards that once again the number of research opportunities presented to Cure Autism Now has surpassed the funding we are able to offer, making the process all the more painstaking. While it is agonizing to be unable to fund all the research being proposed, the grant process is a reminder of how many devoted researchers are expending significant time and brain power thinking about autism. And, as Dr. Colamarino notes, we must continue to facilitate the influx of as many new researchers and ideas as possible.
To that end, many of this year's grants focused on several hot areas of research: multi-faceted studies of infant siblings of individuals with autism intended to promote earlier identification and intervention; studies of the physiology of brain function with a focus on integration of sensory inputs; studies targeting previously under-studied features of autism including motor symptoms, immune functioning and possible interactions with the nervous system; and combinations of genetic and environmental influences.
At Cure Autism Now we continue to accelerate the pace of autism research since we know for the families who live with this disorder, effective treatments and a cure cannot come soon enough. We believe that research of the highest quality that defines the basic biology of autism and identifies the affected pathways will take us there. On behalf of our loved ones with autism, we extend our gratitude to all those who participated in the grant review process.