Home > Science > 5|25: Celebrating Five Years of Autism Science Day 19: First Successful Autism Genome-Wide Association Study Results

5|25: Celebrating Five Years of Autism Science Day 19: First Successful Autism Genome-Wide Association Study Results

In honor of the anniversary of Autism Speaks’ founding on Feb 25, for the next 25 days we will be sharing stories about the many significant scientific advances that have occurred during our first five years together. Our 19th item, First Successful Autism Genome-Wide Association Study Results,  is from Autism Speaks’ Top 10 Autism Research Events of 2009.

Advances in technology and analytical methods over the past several years have enabled a better understanding of genetic risk factors for ASD. The human genome has over 6 billion DNA nucleotides. Until recently, it has been extremely difficult for scientists to compare two groups of individuals – one affected by a condition versus a comparison group – in terms of their detailed DNA because such comparisons require the analysis of at least half a million to a million individual locations in the genome of thousands of people. New methods, called Genome-Wide Association Studies (GWAS), have now made it possible to perform such comparisons and identify single changes in DNA nucleotides as specific genetic risk factors. Although this powerful technology has already produced exciting findings in other complex diseases, it wasn’t until 2009 that GWAS studies finally began to bear fruit for autism. In the Spring and again in the Fall, researchers reported successful application of GWAS technology to ASD.

GWAS is a powerful analysis technique that allows researchers to sift through hundreds of million of bits of genetic data to identify changes to the genetic code that are associated with a disease. Because the approach is not based on any specific biological hypothesis, scientists can cast the broadest experimental net possible, and use sophisticated statistical methods to establish the disease association. In recent years, GWAS has been successful in identifying susceptibility genes for such diverse conditions as macular degeneration, diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn’s disease, and bipolar disorder. In April 2009, a large team of scientists led by investigators at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, reported results from the first successful GWAS study in autism. Tens of thousands of DNA samples are required for GWAS to produce meaningful results, so working with collaborators that included members of the Autism Genome Project, the researchers pooled samples from the Autism Speaks-funded Autism Genetic Resource Exchange (AGRE) combined with many other collections. The result was identification of a DNA variant associated with the genes cadherin 10 and 9, which are responsible for creating molecules that facilitate the formation of neural connectivity. This finding is consistent with accumulating evidence suggesting abnormal interactions between neurons may be at the core of the deficits seen in autism.

The idea that faulty connections between neurons plays a major role in ASD was further supported with the publication of the second autism GWAS study in October. Also working with AGRE and members of the Autism Speaks-funded Autism Genome Project, a collaboration led by investigators from Boston’s Autism Consortium and Johns Hopkins University used a very different statistical approach to discover an association between ASD and the gene semaphorin-5A. Similar to the cadherins identified in the first study, semaphorin 5A is thought to play an important role in neural development.

Taken together, these two groundbreaking studies confirm the potential for GWAS to make successful contributions to our understanding of autism genetics. Remarkably, out of the approximately 20,000 different human genes the experiments could have identified, the genetic variations that were uncovered are genes involved in brain development, serving to expand and reinforce our current thinking about biological mechanisms of autism. Like all new findings, they continue to focus the attention of the scientific community on the next directions for research and exploration.

Update since this story was published: DNA technology has once again advanced dramatically. New high-throughput techniques have finally made it possible to sequence entire stretches of genes, known as exons, in large numbers of patients. At the end of 2009, stimulus funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act were awarded to investigators from the Autism Genome Project and the Autism Consortium who will use these new techniques to conduct a very detailed examination of 1,000 different genes linked to autism using several thousands of families who have kindly provided their DNA.

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