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Autism Speaks awards 21 new research grants funding

New York, N.Y. (December 16, 2010) Autism Speaks, the world's largest autism science and advocacy organization, today announced the awarding of 21 new research grants totaling $2,309,233 in funding over the next three years. In this round of grants, Autism Speaks inaugurates its Bob and Suzanne Wright Trailblazer Awards which support highly novel "out of the box" autism-relevant research. The three Trailblazer Awards this year fund small investigator-initiated projects that are potentially transformative, paradigm shifting, and have the potential to overcome significant roadblocks in autism research within a 12-month period. The majority of the grants funded this year pilot research projects focused on innovation, research strategy, and Autism Speaks' research priority areas. Funding is also allocated to four special research projects.

"Suzanne and I are proud this year to launch the Trailblazer Awards, made possible by the generosity of a core group of donors and supporters who believe that measured risks in autism research, like measured risks in the world of business, can yield significant, high impact results," said Autism Speaks Co-founder Bob Wright. "These novel research projects have tremendous potential to open new avenues to understanding autism spectrum disorder (ASD)."

"The Autism Speaks research portfolio is the core of our support for individuals impacted with ASD and their families," added Autism Speaks President Mark Roithmayr. "We know that as families seek the best possible diagnosis, treatments and therapies for their loved ones, validated research is critical in giving families confidence and hope for improving the lives of individuals with ASD," he continued. "Without the incredible generosity of our community and corporate partners, and the funds raised at hundreds of Walk Now for Autism Speaks events throughout the year, this research would not be possible."

Bob and Suzanne Wright Trailblazer Awards

2010 is the inaugural year of the Bob and Suzanne Wright Trailblazer grant program which selected three for funding from more than 30 applications submitted. Trailblazers applications are submitted on a rolling basis with a faster than usual review and funding cycle. Budgets may not exceed $100,000 for the one year.

The first approved study comes from Philip Schwartz, Ph.D. who seeks to insert neuronal stem cells derived from autism brain tissue into a living mouse in order to study how autism neurons actually function in the brain (An In Vivo, iPSC-Based, Model of Autism, University of California, Los Angeles). If successful, this could open the door to a whole new line of research on the biological basis of autism. Antonio Persico, M.D. will explore an entirely new potential cause of autism a virus that is vertically transmitted from parent to child and is potentially treatable (Vertical Viral Transmission as a Frequent Cause of Autism, Universit Campus Bio-Medico di Roma). In the third study, Robert Naviaux, M.D., Ph.D. will explore how mitochondrial disorder could affect how the brain develops and contributed to brain inflammation (Nucleotide Signaling in the Genesis and Treatment of Autism, University of California, San Diego). Furthermore, it could lead to new therapy approaches.

Pilot Research Grants

The remaining grants funded by Autism Speaks this year include 14 pilot grants and four special research projects which all respond to Autism Speaks' established priorities, including discovery of risk factors for autism, especially environmental factors and gene-environment interactions; development of methods for very early detection of ASD risk; explore natural course of adult development in ASD, with emphasis on factors related to outcome, medical co-morbidities, and mortality; molecular pathophysiology of ASD that can inform translational research for drug discovery or development of diagnostic methods; novel treatments that can address the core symptoms and associated medical conditions throughout the lifespan; and dissemination of empirically-validated screening, diagnostic and treatment approaches.

Autism Speaks Chief Science Officer Geraldine Dawson, Ph.D. remarked, "By piloting research, Autism Speaks is able to draw new investigators into the field of autism research and allow researchers to collect preliminary data to demonstrate whether innovative areas of exploration are plausible. Through the pilot grants as well as special research grants, we are making investments in studies with promise for immediate impact as well as in studies that will move the field in new directions for the future."

This year, 14 pilot grants were selected from 105 evaluated for their focus on innovation, research strategy, and relevance of the topic to those Autism Speaks research priority areas. Those Pilot studies will receive $832,968 for the first year of study for a total of $1,668,980 over two years.

Epigenetic and gene-environment influences were the proposed research topics of three studies. Looking at human chromosomes and nerve cells, Schahram Akbarian, M.D. Ph.D. focuses on epigenetic activation of the prefrontal cortex during development (Neuronal Epigenome Mapping in Autism, Brudnick Neuropsychiatric Institute). Jessica Connelly, Ph.D. will examine epigenetics and the oxytocin pathway in animal models (Epigenetics and the Oxytocin Pathway, University of Virginia). Oxytocin influences social behavior and anxiety and has translational potential. Beate St. Pourcain, Ph.D. will be funded to study of genetic risk factors that interact with environmental exposures during development (Genetic variation and gene-environment influences in autistic-like traits, University of Bristol). Children and their mothers will be studied with an emphasis on the effects on social communication and interaction.

An increasingly translational emphasis is evident in the neurobiological projects that are being recommended for funding. These include studies of mouse models by Rene Anand, Ph.D. on the deficiency of nicotinic receptor-neurexin interactions in autism (Deficiency of Nicotinic Receptor-Neurexin Interactions in Autism, The Ohio State University); by Anna Francesconi, Ph.D. on regulation of mGlur signaling by lipid domains in Fragile X (Regulation of mGluR signaling by lipid domains in Fragile X Syndrome, Albert Einstein College of Medicine); by Bryan Luikart, Ph.D. on the impact of Pten dysfunction on neuronal physiology (The Impact of Pten Dysfunction on Neuronal Physiology, Dartmouth University); and by Nuham Sonenberg, Ph.D. on regulation of neuronal translation in autism (Regulation of neuronal translation in Autism Spectrum Disorders, McGill University). A study of human tissue by Gregory Ordway, Ph.D. will examine glia pathology in autism to elucidate the "helper" role of astrocytes and possibly lead to identification of specific pathologies (Glia Pathology in Autism, East Tennessee State University). Daniel Barth, Ph.D.'s mouse study which will examine the role of neuroinflammation in ASD-related behaviors, hyper-excitability, and epilepsy has clear clinical implications in its focus on maternal infection, brain inflammation and seizures in the offspring and the co- occurrence of epilepsy and ASD (The role of neuroinflammation in ASD-related behaviors, hyper-excitability and epilepsy, University of Colorado at Boulder). Finally, Lin Sikich, M.D. will conduct an 8-week placebo-controlled treatment trial of oxytocin for children with autism (8-week placebo-controlled trial of oxytocin for treatment of children with autism, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill). Oxytocin again is selected because of its involvement in prosocial behaviors.

Four of the recommended pilot studies concern adolescents or adults with autism. Three of these projects involve relatively large existing databases that can inform policy and practice. Paul Shattuck, Ph.D. will examine the impact of interventions in high school on young adult outcomes in the areas of employment, higher education, service use, social and community participation, and functional independence (Factors Related to Young Adult Outcomes in Autism Spectrum Disorders, Washington University). Megan Farley, Ph.D. focuses on the transition from school-based to adult services with particular emphasis on treatment and service opportunities that could improve quality of life (Functional Outcome Factors in Adults with Autism Spectrum Disorders, University of Utah). Julie Taylor, Ph.D. examines patterns and environmental predictors of employment and independence among adults with ASD, looking at family income, broader economic conditions, the service system, and the role of involvement with community and religious programs (Patterns and Environmental Predictors of Employment and Independence among Adults with ASD, Vanderbilt University). In a pilot intervention study at Lehigh University, Linda Bambara, Ed.D. will assess the efficacy of a peer-mediated social skills training program for high school students with ASD (Peer-mediated Social Skills Training for High School Students with Autism Spectrum Disorders, Lehigh University).

Special Research Grants

Four special research projects were recommended for a first-year total of $229,920 and over a three-year period, $340,253. Two of the studies leverage datasets from existing Autism Speaks programs: the Toddler Treatment Network analysis to be conducted by Sally Rogers, Ph.D., (Meta Analysis Toddler Treatment Network, University of California, Davis) and the centralized standard database for the baby siblings research consortium by Gregory S. Young, Ph.D. (A Centralized Standard Database for the Baby Siblings Research Consortium, University of California, Davis). These analytic projects were subject to internal review by Autism Speaks senior science staff. Partial funding was also approved for Autistica to help support Jonathan Greene's, Ph.D. iBASIS study (Intervention within the British Study of Autism Siblings (i-BASIS), University of Manchester) an intervention prior to 12 months for siblings of a child already diagnosed with autism in the United Kingdom.

The final special project comes from Richard Paylor, Ph.D. who will perform behavioral evaluation of rat knockout models of ASD (Behavioral Evaluation of Rat Knockout Models of ASD, Baylor College of Medicine). The model is provided as part of a partnership between scientists at SAGE labs and Autism Speaks, and this study focuses on the complexity of behaviors that are potentially possible in rat models as compared with other rodents.


Contact: Jane E. Rubinstein
Autism Speaks

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