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Department of Defense Announces $5.9 Million in Autism Research Funding

May 11, 2008

The Autism Spectrum Disorder Research Program (ASDRP) was created by Congress in 2006 when it appropriated $7.5 million for autism research in the Fiscal 2007 Department of Defense Appropriations Act (P.L. 109-289). Autism Speaks presented this program to Congress and worked with key Congressional champions in securing Federal appropriations for defense-funded autism research. The program was designed to supplement other federally-funded autism research such as that conducted by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Recognizing Autism Speaks' leadership role in the ASDRP, the Department of Defense appointed Peter Bell, Executive Vice President of Autism Speaks, to chair the Integration Panel responsible for designing the objectives and final funding decisions of the ASDRP. For more information about the ASDRP, visit their website.

New funding opportunities for Fiscal Year 2008 are now available on the ASDRP website.

The Department of Defense's Autism Spectrum Disorder Research Program (ASDRP) recently announced the proposals recommended for funding from its Fiscal Year 2007 grants totaling $5.9 million to aid research programs in three main categories: Clinical Partnerships, Idea Development and Concept Awards. In keeping with the ASDRP's mission, the grants awarded will promote innovative research that advances the understanding of autism spectrum disorders and leads to improved treatment outcomes. All awarded research programs are administered by the US Army Medical Research and Material Command through the Office of the Congressionally Directed Medical Research Programs (CDMRP).

"The medical research programs funded by the DOD are unique in that the consumer perspective plays a pivotal role in all decision making," said Peter Bell, Executive Vice President of Autism Speaks and Chair of the FY07 Integrations Panel. "As a parent of a child with autism, I was particularly impressed with how both the program administrators and the scientific participants respected our views and, collectively, we identified the proposals that would have the greatest impact for our kids today."

As stated on the DOD CDMRP website, "Identification on the list of proposals recommended for funding is not intended to either confer a right to funding nor does it guarantee funding. The award of federal funds to support any of these proposals is contingent upon successful negotiations and applicable federal policy."

The Clinical Partnership Award

The Clinical Partnership Award supports the development of translational research collaborations between two independent investigators to address a central problem or question in autism spectrum disorder in a manner that would be less readily achievable through approaches based in a single setting.

Margaret Bauman, M.D.
Massachusetts General Hospital

Dr. Martha Herbert, M.D., Ph.D.
Massachusetts General Hospital

Grant Title: A Prospective Multi-system Evaluation of Infants at Risk for Autism

Many children diagnosed with ASD have additional medical problems, such as gastrointestinal or immune deficiencies. Because autism is widely considered a behavioral disorder, many researchers and clinicians do not look for early medical warning signs of autism.

Drs. Herbert and Bauman's research study proposes to learn about the early biological and medical features of autism, and understand the earliest medical changes that occur in ASD, even before the autistic behaviors begin. To do so, they will add biomedical approaches to the study of infants at risk for autism through medical exams, measuring electrical activity in the brain (through EEG) and the study of substances in blood, urine and saliva. The methods they have chosen will give them a greater understanding of the chemistry and metabolism of autism.

How this impacts the autism community: Learning about the early biomedical predictors of autism will lay the foundation for a systematic medical evaluation for young children at risk for autism or show early signs of autism. Additionally, these biomedical markers may in turn be a signal that the child has autism. Discovering such early biomedical predictors will lead to early diagnosis with ASD and therefore early intervention and treatment.

The Idea Development Award

The Idea Development Award supports innovative research that advances the understanding of autism spectrum disorders (ASD) and leads to improved treatment outcomes.

Alberto Ascherio, M.D., Ph.D.
Harvard School of Public Health

Susan Santangelo, Sc.D.
Harvard University
Massachusetts General Hospital

Marc Weisskopf, Ph.D., Sc.D.
Harvard School of Public Health

Grant Title: Maternal Risk Factors for Autism Spectrum Disorders in Children of the Nurses' Health Study II

Environmental factors are thought to play an important role in developmental disorders; however, specific genes remain unknown. This study will utilize the findings from the 2005 Nurses' Health Study II (NHS II), where a large United States national sample were asked to report whether they had any children with an ASD. In addition to the NHS II, information from biennial questionnaires, as well as follow-up questionnaires will be used to compare 700 cases and 1,400 controls matched on a child's age and gender for maternal risk factors. Demographic, reproductive, dietary and lifestyle factors will also be examined as part of this study to identify potential risk factors for ASD.

Dr. Ascherio will oversee the investigation of reproductive, dietary and lifestyle factors in association with ASD. Dr. Weisskopf will conduct environmental research investigating heavy metal exposures including air pollution and biosample analysis. Dr. Santangelo will lead the genetic analyses which include a follow-up on a recent whole-genome study as well as investigations of candidate genes involved in metal metabolism.

How this impacts the autism community: Investigating potential maternal, demographic, reproductive, dietary and lifestyle factors can lead to the revelation of as-yet unidentified risk factors for ASD, potentially impacting public health recommendations for obstetric practice.

Maria Hepel, Ph.D.
State University of New York at Potsdam

S. Jill James, Ph.D.
University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences

Mark D. Noble, M.D., Ph.D.
University of Rochester Medical Center

Grant Title: Redox Abnormalities as a Vulnerability Phenotype for Autism and Related Alterations in CNS Development

Evidence from multiple laboratories indicates that children with ASD are under more oxidative stress as compared to those that develop normally. Oxidative stress can disrupt the normal development of the brain and the immune system and may contribute to the risk of developing autism. Despite this insight, there is still very little direct evidence that supports the understanding of oxidative stress with the neurological and immunologic components of ASD.

Drs. Hepel, James and Nobles' research study will bring together leading research laboratories to conduct analysis of oxidative abnormalities in children with ASD. The study is broken up into three major projects.

Project One, spearheaded by Dr. James, investigates the functional impact of oxidative stress in children with ASD and determines whether particular biomarkers can be used to identify children at risk for developing autism. The identification of such biomarkers will allow doctors to identify at risk children much sooner, as autism is currently diagnosed solely on behavioral characteristics. Project One will also determine whether oxidative treatment will improve behavior and/or immune function.

Project Two directly tests the hypothesis that oxidative abnormalities are indicators of abnormalities in developing brain cells, and whether these abnormalities cause the developmental changes associated with ASD. Project Two is lead by Dr. Noble.

Project Three, lead by Dr. Hepel, applies recent achievements in biosensor developments to create a small scale sensor that will aid in the determination of a potential biomarker for autism. Project Three will allow the Project One and Project Two analyses to be conducted at a greatly reduced cost and with instrumentation that does not require extensive specialized training to utilize.

How this impacts the autism community: The combined efforts of these three projects will provide new options for earlier detection, treatment strategies, a greater understanding of abnormal brain development and new tools to detect and analyze these alterations in a clinical setting.

William Johnson, M.D.
University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey
Robert Wood Johnson Medical School

Sherie Novotny, M.D.
University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey
Robert Wood Johnson Medical School

T. Peter Stein, Ph.D.
University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey
School of Osteopathic Medicine

Grant Title: Developing Treatment, Treatment Validation & Treatment Scope in the Setting of an Autism Clinical Trial

Key scientific studies support oxidative stress as a mechanism that may contribute to the development of ASD. Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), a key omega-3 fatty acid, has properties that oppose oxidative stress, and initial therapeutic trails using DHA appear promising.

Dr. Johnson's research study is composed of three linked projects. Project One conducts rigorous therapeutic trials using DHA to assess the effect of oxidative stress on the behavioral symptoms and functional ability of ASD. Project Two monitors changes in medical biomarkers during DHA therapy in children diagnosed with autism. New, more informative biomarkers will also be developed throughout this project. Project Three will determine the genotype and other gene variants in children undergoing DHA therapy.

How this impacts the autism community: The likely contributions of this study are the development of new therapy for autism, a new way to access the progress of therapy and responsiveness of this therapy in children diagnosed with autism.

Robert F. Vogt, Jr., Ph.D.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Grant Title: Multiplexed Suspension Arrays to Investigate Newborn and Childhood Blood Samples for Potential Immune Biomarkers of Autism

This research study will test the scientific theory, Gestational Neuroimmunopathology (GENIP), that certain antibodies in pregnant women and infants may cause alterations in the development of the fetal brain that may lead to ASD. These antibodies are formed by the immune system as part of the nomal host defense activity; however, some antibodies may cross over the placenta and enter into the fetal circulation during pregnancy. The concentration of these antibodies could have effects on the developing nervous system.

Dr. Vogt's research study will utilize dried blood spot samples that have been collected from newborn infants as part of a public health screening. Some of these samples have been archived and, with consent, can be used for retrospective research studies. Antibody levels from samples where those newborns later developed autism will be compared to those that have developed normally.

How this impacts the autism community: If the GENIP hypothesis is true, the measurement of antibody levels can aid in the early identification and treatment of ASD.

W. Ted Brown, M.D., Ph.D.
New York State Institute for Basic Research in Developmental Disabilities

Abha Chauhan, Ph.D.
New York State Institute for Basic Research in Developmental Disabilities

Jerzy Wegiel, Ph.D.
New York State Institute for Basic Research in Developmental Disabilities

Thomas Wisniewski, M.D.
New York State Institute for Basic Research in Developmental Disabilities

Characterization of the Pathological and biochemical Markers that Correlate to the Clinical Features of Autism

Drs. Brown, Chauhan, Wegiel, and Wisniewski have designed a research study to identify the most critical period of distortion of neural development and mechanisms that delay normal growth of neurons and distort development and function of neuronal networks. Using important research findings supported by grants from the National Alliance for Autism Research/Autism Speaks, as well as Autism Speaks' Autism Tissue Program, the doctors Will be able to look closely at four brain regions. This study has been divided into the following three parts:

1. Contribution of significant delay of neuronal development and metabolic shift of neurons to clinical phenotype of autism

2. Neuropathological markers of abnormal brain development and aging in autism

3. Oxidative damage and inflammation in the brains of autism subjects: correlation with severity and phenotypes

What this means for the autism community: Identification of particular pathomechanisms, morphological and biochemical markers of autism may lead to possible new targets for treatments.

The Concept Award

The Concept Award supports the exploration of an initial idea or novel observation that could give rise to a testable hypothesis. Those awarded have demonstrated how their research studies will enhance existing knowledge of ASD and/or create an entirely new avenue for investigation.

Ye Duan, Ph.D.
University of Missouri, Columbia

Grant Title: 3D Facial Pattern Analysis for Autism

Autism Spectrum Disorders are currently only united by common behavioral patterns. The specific aim of Dr. Duan's research study is to acquire, explore and analyze three-dimensional (3D) facial features in subjects diagnosed with ASD to determine whether a common facial structure exists also. The study will employ recently developed 3D shape acquisition technologies and advanced computational techniques to determine if there is a statistically significant facial pattern in children diagnosed with autism as well as define what this pattern looks like.

How this impacts the autism community: Development of a common autism facial phenotype will be useful for future studies understanding autism's clinical and genetic heterogeneity. This may also provide a potential prescreening tool to assist early diagnosis.

Chris Lau, Ph.D.
University of California, San Francisco
Northern California Institute for Research and Education

Grant Title: Y Chromosome Regulation of Autism Susceptibility Genes

The incidence of autism is 1 in 150 children, with the ratio as high as 10:1 in boys to girls that are diagnosed as having a high-functioning ASD. The sex ratio for those children that have been diagnosed with a complex ASD is 1:1. Based on this information, Dr. Lau's research study focuses on identifying the putative Y chromosome gene(s) responsible for such ectopic dysregulation of neurogenic genes important for cognitive development. The study will utilize, in general, advanced molecular genetics, genomics and transgenic mouse strategies.

How this impacts the autism community: Confirmation of the role of neuronal genes in autism susceptibility will shed significant insights on mechanisms involved in the sexual dimorphism of brain development, in particular to ASD. This will be important for future research on the correlation between sexual dimorphism and ASD.

David S. Mandell, ScD
University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine

Grant Title: The Prevalence and Presentation of Autism Among Patients in a Psychiatric Hospital

Several published studies have estimated that among adults who are receiving mental health treatment at psychiatric hospitals, between 0.6 percent and 5.3 percent have autism, but only a tenth of those with autism are actually diagnosed; instead, they are most commonly diagnosed with schizophrenia. Making the proper diagnosis is critical to the treatment that individuals receive.

Dr. Mandell has designed a research program to determine how many patients at one large psychiatric hospital have autism, what characteristics differentiate them from individuals with other psychiatric disorders and whether there is a feasible way to easily determine which adults have autism when they first come to the hospital.

How this impacts the autism community: This study will ultimately benefit adults with autism who have been misdiagnosed. Additionally, the measures that are developed will be used as diagnostic and assessment tools for adults.

Jay Pettegrew, M.D.
Phrf, inc.

Grant Title: Molecular/Metabolomics Biomarker of Autism

Dr. Pettegrew's research study proposes to develop a highly innovative molecular biomarker associated with the molecular and metabolic changes related to autism. Non-invasive technology is utilized in order for repeated studies to be performed.

How this impacts the autism community: The successful development of a molecular biomarker will provide valuable insight into fundamental molecular mechanisms underlying autism.

Matthew Reese, Ph.D.
The University of Kansas Medical Center

Grant Title: The Reliability and Validity of Autism Assessments and Diagnosis Using Telemedicine

Current technology allows some clinicians to examine and diagnose patients from remote locations. Dr. Reese's research study will test to see if those clinicians that are able to evaluate their patient from a remote location (e.g. viewed on a television) are any more or less accurate in diagnosing autism than those who have the opportunity to interact with the patient live.

How this impacts the autism community: If the accuracy of diagnosis both live and remotely do not differ, then many families may no longer have to drive long distances to get an evaluation for a potentially autistic child.

Daryl S. Spinner, Ph.D.
Department of Developmental Biochemistry NYS Institute for Basic Research in Developmental Disabilities

Grant Title: Epigenetic Regulation of Autism-associated Genes by Environmental Insults: Novel Associations

Epigenetic modifications (i.e., heritable changes to our DNA that affect gene expression but do not alter the DNA sequence) may play a major role in the development of autism. A number of environmental influences have been implicated in cases of autism, including exposure to specific viruses, or drugs such as valproate, thalidomide and cocaine.

Dr. Spinner's research project will conduct a systematic exploration of possible links between exposure to these agents and epigenetic modifications in autism-related genes in mice. Neuronal cells isolated from the brain cortex will be exposed to a variety of agents at physiologically-relevant concentrations and epigenetic changes to autism-associated genes will be measured.

How this impacts the autism community: The results of this study could indicate or contraindicate elimination of exposure to such agents during critical stages of brain development to prevent some environmentally induced cases of autism.

Ji Sze, Ph.D.
Albert Einstein, College of Medicine of Yeshiva University

Grant Title: Discovering Autism Candidate Genes in 5HT Signaling

As autism candidate genes are uncovered through genome scans, one of the many challenges is to understand how mutations in many different genes can produce specific deficits in behavior and physiology.

Dr. Sze's research study is designed to identify the signaling cascade that involves multiple autism candidate genes by using nematodes as a genetically tractable system.

How this impacts the autism community: The discovery of genetic leads linking several autistic phenotypes will ultimately help refine the subgroups of ASD.