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Day One at Autism Speaks' Second Annual Autism Investment Conference

Day 1 sessions spotlight technology designed to improve autism treatment, diagnosis and the management of wandering
March 04, 2014

Today, Autism Speaks convened its second annual Autism Investment Conference, in San Francisco. Building on the success of last year’s inaugural conference, this year’s meeting is dedicated to advancing the delivery of products and services that improve quality of life for individuals with autism and their families.

Autism Speaks Chief Science Officer Rob Ring welcomed more than 150 researchers, entrepreneurs, investors, biotech and pharmaceutical executives, healthcare professionals and autism-service providers.

"Our autism investment conference has become the most important event on the calendar of those working in the for-profit sector to address the diverse unmet needs of the autism community," Dr. Ring said. "The concepts and products being presented and discussed at AIC represent what clinical care, assistive technology, employment and residential solutions will look like in an exciting future for individuals living with autism, across the lifespan."

The event’s educational seminars, company showcases and panel discussions connect researchers, developers and investors in healthcare, housing, employment and other autism-related services. This year, the conference is shining a particularly strong spotlight on innovation in wandering technology and digital applications.

Autism Speaks’ venture-philanthropy affiliate DELSIA will award a $10,000 prize to the winner of tomorrow’s apps pitch jam, Dr. Ring announced. During this event, autism app developers will compete for $10,000 in prize money to develop their life-enhancing digital tools.

Dr. Ring also thanked conference partner Google for providing registrants with a complementary full-day Equipping Entrepreneurs workshop at the company’s nearby headquarters in Mountain View. The entrepreneurial “boot camp” will take place Thursday, March 6.

Diagnostic & Therapeutic Technology Showcase

This morning’s sessions focused on the development of diagnostic services and therapeutic devices and medicines. Following an educational seminar on medical product development, Autism Speaks Senior Vice President for Medical Research Paul Wang introduced the session’s company showcase presenters:

Lineagen President and CEO Michael Paul highlighted recent genetic discoveries that his company is incorporating in the next generation of its FirstStepDx genetic test. (Read more here.)

Acumen Founder and CEO Jessica Owens described her company’s mobile tools for improving the diagnosis and management of developmental delays. 

IntegraGen Vice President Larry Yost described his company’s ARISk early autism risk assessment. The test scans for more than 1,700 genetic markers for autism risk using a swab from a child’s inner cheek. Children who score at high risk are referred for full evaluation by autism specialists.

Stemina Head of Diagnostics Marc Schneebaum introduced another type of early diagnostic test, based on biochemical differences in the blood. With further research, the company hopes its test will also identify biochemical signatures that can guide the development and use of treatments among subgroups of individuals with autism.

Pediatric Bioscience President and CEO Jan D’Alvise described how her company’s maternal antibody test can help reduce the age of diagnosis by providing autism-risk information in cases where autism runs in a family or a child shows signs of developmental delays that might be associated with autism.

Alcobra Pharma Chief Medical Officer Jonathan Rubin described his firm’s development of biomarkers to guide clinical trials of potential medicines for autism and fragile X syndrome.

Retrophin Executive Vice President Srinivas Rao described his company’s plans to develop two synthetic versions of the hormone oxytocin as possible treatments for autism. Oxytocin’s role in emotional bonding has long been of interest in autism medicine development. (See our related research news here.) Retrophin specializes in developing medicines for disorders that lack effective medical treatments.

Innovative Technologies

The afternoon sessions opened with an educational seminar on innovative technologies. Moderator Matthew Goodwin, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, recently co-authored two books reviewing the development of new technologies for autism research and care. Dr. Goodwin’s research includes the development of body-worn sensors that help parents, teachers and therapists anticipate the needs of children and adults affected by autism. In field tests, the technology has proven useful in schools and homes caring for nonverbal individuals.

He described the field as a “young science” that is beginning to determine what technologies work best for which individuals under different circumstances. “We can develop wonderful things in a university setting,” he said. “But if we’re going to get these products into people’s hands we need industry partnerships.”

During the session’s “Company Showcase,” Gahan Pandina of Janssen Research & Development described his group’s creation of the Autism Knowledge Engine. Janssen tapped Autism Speaks expertise to develop this platform for optimizing the development of new medicines and coordinating the often-complex healthcare of children with autism. Last week, the technology won the Microsoft HUG Award for Innovation. (See our related news story here.)

Ilumivu Co-Founder Mark Tuomenoksa described the company's patient-centered software system that integrates data streams from wearable sensors and mobile apps to provide researchers, clinicians and caregivers a more-complete picture of the individuals they are supporting. The system securely collects, integrates and stores information that can be analyzed and viewed online. Bringing multiple data streams together in this way enables easier identification of behavioral patterns and possible correlating factors while monitoring change in behavior response to treatment.

Mitul Shah, of the West Health Institute, described the institute’s research project on an exercise-game (“exer-gaming”) program designed to supplement behavioral therapy. The institute is studying the effectiveness of the platform’s motion-sensing software in helping participants with autism interact and track their progress. The goal is to supplement therapist-led intervention programs with a lower-cost motivational software program.

Paul Lipkin, of the Interactive Autism Network, discussed IAN’s role as the largest online platform connecting researchers and families affected by autism. The technology powering IAN enables hundreds of investigators to reach more than 45,000 registrants. This has allowed families affected by autism to participate in hundreds of research projects. Dr. Lipkin described recent IAN studies on wandering and the use of omega-3 fatty acid supplements. Autism Speaks is an active IAN partner and supports its activities through research grants.

Other AIC2014 Day 1 sessions and speakers will include a workshop and company showcase on wandering response and prevention and keynote presentations by Google Ventures’ Krishna Yeshwant and Google for Entrepreneurs’ John Lyman. Check back for these and other related news stories and videos here.