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Why Autism Became My Career … A Love Story

February 14, 2012 7 comments

 Posted by AGRE Senior Recruitment Research Manager Tiffany Torigoe

In 2003, I moved to California from my native Hawaii. I’d just graduated from college, and I immediately accepted a job with Autism Genetic Resource Exchange (AGRE) with one goal in mind: Start building my career in research!

I didn’t know that this job would become so much more.

Autism quickly became my passion. As I learned more about the complexities of autism, I knew I wanted to make a difference in the lives of affected families. My interactions with AGRE parents and grandparents have been amazing. They have remarkable stories about their children and how each is wonderfully unique.

At the same time, I find it a great challenge to address some of their greatest concerns. I understand their urgent need for answers. But as someone trained in science, I also know that real answers sometimes take years to deliver. I remind our parents to never give up hope.

One of my most memorable interactions occurred at a Defeat Autism Now (DAN) conference several years ago. Autism Speaks had just started to become a prominent player within the autism community, and there was still apprehension about us. Unfortunately, I was not well equipped to answer some of the challenging political questions people asked me that day! I felt like a moving target and was left confused because I had thought we were all working towards the same goal: helping people with autism!

Just as I was packing up for the day, a man came over to the Autism Speaks table to talk with me. “I’ve been meaning to come over here all day,” he said. “I just want to thank you for being here. It means so much to us that you’re here to support us. Thank you.” To this day, whenever I feel lost in the politics and paperwork, I remember that moment and am reminded by why I’m here at AGRE.

Ultimately, I think the future of autism research lies in collaboration with scientists and families around the world. So it is very exciting to see AGRE’s mission begin to expand outside of North America. We know that autism is a global issue, and I think diversity is the glue that autism research needs to put all the pieces together.

In closing I want to thank all our supporters – those who Walk, those who participate in research, and everyone who cares about our mission to improve the lives of all who struggle with autism. Thank you so much. I love being part of this community.

Follow the hyperlinks to learn more about AGRE and current opportunities for participating in autism research. You can also explore the studies we’re funding using our grant search.

Our Science Data-Meister Reflects on the Big Picture

December 12, 2011 Leave a comment

Posted by Dusan Bosnjakovic, director of research information systems for Autism Speaks Autism Genetic Resource Exchange

On a day to day basis, I can get so immersed in the mechanics, data and details of what I do that I sometimes forget to step back and see the bigger picture: The tremendous value of the research information systems that Autism Speaks has created within its Autism Genetic Resource Exchange (AGRE).

I am feeling particularly sensitive to this “big picture” with this week’s announcement of the historic addition of AGRE information to the National Database for Autism Research (NDAR), which is supported and maintained by the National Institutes of Health.

I’m reminded that the goal of all my work is to increase the availability and usefulness of the vital information that we collect—information that can advance the scientific understanding of autism and speed the development of better treatments.

I promise to spare you the technical details. Suffice it to say, our role is to take the anonymous information (de-identified data) we gather from our participating families and put it in an easy-to-use format that autism researchers can use to increase the power and accuracy of their scientific findings and insights.

In joining our data with NDAR’s, we are making more comprehensive data available to the broader scientific community and also linking data collected on participants within AGRE with additional data on the same participants across a variety of other research studies (all anonymous). This is adding significantly to the autism field’s body of scientific knowledge. And this is our obligation to our families: To maximize their contributions and make sure their de-identified data will always be available to qualified scientists who are working to improve the lives of those who struggle with autism.  We take pride in providing researchers with the most comprehensive and highest quality of data possible, so that they can do what they do best: science.

Special thanks go to Reinis Berzins, our AGRE data projects coordinator, whose position was made possible by the $1 million National Institutes of Health grant we received to integrate the AGRE and NDAR databases. To learn more about AGRE, please visit its website. To learn more about the AGRE-NDAR federation, please see this week’s related news item.

Read more science news and perspective on the Science Page.

Base Pairs to Bedside: A Visit to Beijing Genomics Institute

November 10, 2011 Leave a comment

From left: Drs. Yonghui Jiang, Andy Shih, Huanming Yang, Geri Dawson, and Clara Lajonchere

Posted by Autism Speaks Vice President of Scientific Affairs Andy Shih, Ph.D.

Beijing Genomics Institute (BGI), the world’s largest genome sequencing organization got its start a little more than a decade ago at a moment when idealism, patriotic fervor and more than a little chutzpah converged to create what one of its founders, Huanming Yang, Ph.D., recently acknowledged was “a Mission Impossible.”

Yang, then with the Chinese Academy of Sciences, promised to complete 1 percent of the Human Genome Project–at the time the biological equivalent of the moon shot of the 1960s. There was just one problem: He didn’t have a gene-sequencing machine!

What followed was one of the most thrilling rags-to-riches stories in modern science. Yang and his colleagues overcame immense technical, financial and political obstacles to deliver the DNA sequence of their portion of human chromosome 3. In doing so, they changed Chinese science forever and built a scientific-industrial juggernaut that now represents 20 percent of the world’s capacity for genome sequencing.

That same can-do spirit was clearly on display when I and Autism Speaks-funded Duke University researcher Yong-hui Jiang, M.D., Ph.D., visited BGI in Shenzhen after the Autism Research Collaboration Development Meeting, co-hosted by Children’s Hospital of Fudan University in Shanghai and Autism Speaks. Not coincidentally, Yang gave the keynote address to the meeting, which ended last weekend.

Today most of BGI is housed in a former shoe factory on a small campus that includes several high-rise dormitories for nearly 4,000 employees. In recent years, the institute has produced such high-impact scientific accomplishments as complete genome sequences of rice and potato plants and the human gut microbiome (our digestive microbes). Through genetic sequencing, it also identified the culprit behind this summer’s deadly E. coli outbreak in Germany. In the face of this public health crisis, BGI marshaled the staff and technology to sequence the entire genome of the toxic bacterial strain in less than three days.

From left: Yirui Li (BGI), Yonghui Jiang (Duke), Jian Wang (BGI), Andy Shih, Jun Wang (BGI), and Hongle Chen (Jet Li’s One Foundation) in front of a picture of Mount Everest taken by Dr. Wang

In visiting BGI, I was impressed by more than the arrays of cutting-edge automated sequencers, which run 24/7. I was struck by BGI’s eclectic leadership.

BGI cofounder, Jian Wang, Ph.D., recently scaled Mount Everest, after three attempts over a two-month period. For inspiration he credits BGI’s landmark collaboration with U.S. and European scientists in documenting the rapid evolution of the Tibetan human genome to accommodate life at high altitudes.

BGI executive director Jun Wang, Ph.D., joined the institute when he was 23 and went on to amass 36 publications in Science and Nature over 12 years. For your average researcher, having 1 or 2 publications in Science or Nature is sufficient to secure a tenured position at a top U.S. or European university.

At age 25 years, Yirui Li is leading the bioinformatics efforts of BGI’s recently announced collaboration with Autism Speaks to sequence 10,000 autism genomes. With 16 Science and Nature publications to his name, Li dropped out of China’s elite Tsing Hua University at age 19.

Despite their intellectual firepower, drive and personal and professional accomplishments, they were a down-to-earth group. They thought nothing of coming in on a Sunday to meet with us. Sporting what appeared to be their regular uniform of T-shirts, jeans and flip-flops or running shoes, they looked more like grad students than high-profile executives of a leading international research institute.

Yang and his colleagues also have a refreshingly progressive view on science and its end game. Impatient with traditional distinctions among scientific disciplines–such as genetics versus environmental sciences–they advocate a “trans-omics” approach to scientific development. In their view, decoding the genome is part of a continuum of activities that includes epigenetics, proteomics, cell biology, systems biology and computer science.

Most importantly, perhaps, they see all these activities as integrated and dedicated to “advancing the science of medicine” and “improving the effectiveness of healthcare.” Clearly, they remain driven by the sense of urgency that allowed them to identify and decipher a deadly pathogen by sequencing its entire DNA sequence in three days.

I left BGI inspired by what I saw and heard. The BGI team seemed refreshingly unencumbered by the petty divisions and willful near-sightedness we too often encounter in science and society. They are pursuing a grander vision that I, too, have lost at times. More than ever, I am hopeful that with enough idealism, ambition and even a little chutzpah, Autism Speaks collaborations like this one will soon deliver a better future for all of our families.

After a few drinks and a dinner of simple and very spicy local fare in the BGI canteen, Yang leaned over to me and said matter-of-factly, “We’ll get it done.”

Please visit our science pages for more news and perspective.

Autism Speaks Science Team Returns from China

November 8, 2011 3 comments


Posted by Autism Speaks Chief Science Officer Geri Dawson, Ph.D.

The Autism Speaks science team traveled to Shanghai, China, last week with the goal of enhancing collaboration among Chinese and North American scientists. Despite the challenges of speaking different languages, we learned a lot from each other. Our Chinese colleagues were eager to hear about new research and treatments being developed in North America. The Americans were impressed with the technological prowess of the Chinese.

A prime example of this technological power is the Beijing Genome Institute, the largest genome sequencing institution in the world and a new Autism Speaks partner. In the coming year, the Beijing Genome Institute will be sequencing the DNA of families participating in our Autism Genome Resource Exchange (AGRE) program, allowing us to create the world’s largest whole genome sequence library for autism research. (See our related news item.)

Another example is a recently launched Chinese program that sends text messages to new mothers, alerting them to the early signs of autism. Chinese researchers are studying whether this innovative “eHealth” strategy results in better referral, assessment and intervention rates for children with early symptoms.

Although my conversations and learnings from my Chinese colleagues were enlightening and we planned many future collaborations, the most significant moment for me was talking to 200 Chinese parents of children with autism. I walked into a room filled with mothers and fathers eager to hear new information about autism. Through a translator, I described new research findings and treatments and fielded questions from the audience.

The questions were remarkably similar to those I hear from parents in the United States. One mother told me that her son had frequent tummy aches and constipation; she wondered if this could be related to his autism. Another parent asked what she should do about her daughter’s fear of fireworks, a common part of special events here. Should she keep her at home and miss the family outings?  A father showed me a large bag filled with medicines he had purchased through the mail and asked if I thought they would help his child.

We talked about the association between autism and gastrointestinal problems and how treating these physical problems can relieve discomfort and, so, help children gain more from their educational programs. We talked about auditory sensitivities and discussed a range of strategies for helping children cope with loud noises. And we talked about how to evaluate whether a treatment is truly effective and safe for a child.

As our conversation continued, I was struck by the fact that, although China and the United States are very different cultures, autism is a common bond. Parents across the globe are looking for answers to help their children. My hope is that Autism Speaks Global Autism Public Health Initiative will be able to make a difference for these families. By partnering with scientists and clinicians in China, we can translate and adapt many of the tool kits and other resources we have developed here in North America—while also learning from our colleagues and families in China.

A Message from our Chief Science Officer

September 6, 2011 4 comments

Dear all,
I hope you enjoy our report on Science Department Monthly Highlights, focusing on major scientific advances and new grants funded by Autism Speaks, as well as the science staff’s media appearances and national/international meetings.  Given the size and scope of our science department, we aren’t attempting a comprehensive report here. If you are interesting in knowing more about activities such as tissue donations, participation in clinical trials, and our research networks (e.g. Baby Sibs Research Consortium), please contact me and our science communications staff at gotquestions@autismspeaks.org.  Enjoy! 

Best wishes,  Geri

  The dog days of August were anything but quiet for the science department. Highlights included the release of the first major report of the Autism Speaks Baby Siblings Research Consortium. The world learned that autism recurs in families at a much higher rate than previously estimated. For perspective and guidance, the national media turned to our director of research for environmental sciences, Alycia Halladay, PhD. Over the course of 24 hours, Alycia made appearances on CNN, MSNBC, and NPR’s “All Things Considered;” was interviewed by reporters for numerous major papers, news services, and magazines; and even found time to answer parents’ questions via live webchat (transcript here)—the first of an ongoing schedule of live chats to be hosted by science department leadership. Geri Dawson, PhD, our chief science officer, wrote a blog that focused on what the new findings mean for parents.

The science department also hosted a two-day Autism and Immunology Think Tank at the New York City office, with some of the nation’s leading thought-leaders in immunology and inflammatory diseases lending fresh insights to aid our planning of research exploring the immune system’s role in autism spectrum disorders. Glenn Rall, PhD, Associate Professor, Fox Chase Cancer Center and member of Autism Speaks’ Scientific Advisory Committee, and Alycia organized and led the meeting which was attended by senior science staff and experts who study the role of the immune system and inflammation in multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s Disease, Alzheimer’s Disease, Multiple Sclerosis, inflammatory bowel diseases, and brain development.

Here, then, is the science department’s abbreviated rundown of August highlights:

Major scientific publications published this month supported with Autism Speaks funds and resources
* Recurrence Risk for Autism Spectrum Disorders: A Baby Siblings Research Consortium Study. Ozonoff S, Young GS, Carter A, et al. Pediatrics. 2011 Aug 15. [Epub ahead of print]
* Coming closer to describing the variable onset patterns in autism. Dawson G. J Am Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry. 2011 Aug; 50(8):744-6.
* Mortality in individuals with autism, with and without epilepsy. Pickett J, Xiu E, Tuchman R, Dawson G, Lajonchere C. J Child Neurol. 2011 Aug;26(8):932-9.

Autism Speaks science staff in the national media
* Alycia gave perspective and guidance related to the results of the Baby Siblings study in The New York Times, Associated Press, USA Today, CNN Health, Time, Healthday, Huffington Post and WebMD; and made related appearances on CNN, MSNBC, and NPR’s “All Things Considered.”
* VP of Scientific Affairs Andy Shih was interviewed by the Philadelphia Inquirer, Parents Express and Education Week about Hacking Autism.
* Alycia was interviewed by Fit Pregnancy about studies on prenatal and early post natal risk factors. She was also interviewed by About.com regarding proposed changes in autism-related entries of next year’s much-anticipated DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fifth edition).
* Andy and Michael Rosanoff, associate director of public health research, were interviewed by Newsweek for a story about the Minnesota Somali prevalence study.
* Geri was interviewed by Parents magazine for a story about early screening and early intervention.
* VP of Translational Research Robert Ring was interviewed by Discover magazine for a story on the use of mice models in autism research.
* Geri was interviewed by the prestigious journal Lancet regarding autism clusters in California.
* Andy was interviewed by CBS 60 Minutes on innovative autism technology.
* Geri and Simon were interviewed by ABC News on the use of avatars in autism treatment.
* Autism Speaks Global Autism Public Health Initiative continued to generate world headlines, including  this Wall St Journal interview, around its Conference on Autism Spectrum Disorders and Developmental Disabilities in Bangladesh and South Asia, which resulted in the adoption of the “Dhaka Declaration” presented to the United Nations.


Science webchats
* On August 15th, the science department hosted its first live webchat, with Alycia fielding questions related to the widely covered release of the Baby Siblings Research Consortium’s findings of unexpectedly high rates of autism recurrence in families. Nearly 1,000 live viewers joined the chat and submitted 299 questions and comments. This is the first of an ongoing series of live web chats by senior science staff.

Science leadership at national and international meetings

* Geri, Andy, Rob, Michael, and VP of Scientific Review Anita Miller Sostek attended the treatment grant review meeting in San Francisco, Aug 1-2.  86 applications focusing on developing and evaluating new biomedical and behavioral treatments were reviewed by a panel of scientific experts and stakeholders.  Ann Gibbons, executive director, National Capital Area, offered her expertise as a consumer reviewer on the panel.
* Michael attended the World Congress of Epidemiology, in Edinburgh, Scotland, Aug 7-11. This year’s theme was “Changing populations, changing diseases: Epidemiology for Tomorrow’s World,” and the International Clinical Epidemiology Network Team, which Autism Speaks co-funds, presented on an array of research efforts. In addition, Danish researchers presented data on the increased risk for autism in children with low birth weight and other birth-related conditions.
* Geri and Alycia hosted an Autism and Immunology Think Tank, Aug 22-23, in NYC (described above).
*The Autism Treatment Network leadership held its semi-annual planning meeting in the NYC offices Aug 23-24, with Geri, Clara, Rob, Dr. Dan Coury, Medical Director, ATN, Jim Perrin, MD, Director, Clinical Coordinating Center, ATN, and Nancy Jones attending.
* The science department senior leadership and Mark Roithmayr held a strategic planning meeting with members of its scientific advisory committee in the NYC offices, Aug 24.  Among the advisors attending this meeting were Joe Coyle, MD, Chair, department of psychiatry, Harvard Medical School, Gary Goldstein, MD, president, Kennedy Krieger Institute, Steve Scherer, PhD, director, Centre for Applied Genomics, University of Toronto, and Roberto Tuchman, MD, associate professor of neurology, Miami Children’s Hospital.

*On Sunday, August 28th, Geri Dawson presented at the Triennial Conference of the Royal Arch Masons, a group that makes a substantial annual donation to support the work of the Toddler Treatment Network.

California Autism Twin Study Suggests Prenatal Risk Factors





Posted by Clara Lajonchere, PhD, vice president of clinical programs, Autism Speaks





As head of clinical programs at Autism Speaks, I oversee a number of vital resources for researchers studying the causes and treatment of autism. Today brought the publication of a new and revealing study made possible by Autism Speaks’ Autism Genetic Resource Exchange (AGRE).

Autism researchers have been studying twins for years for insights into the genetic and nongenetic factors that influence the development of autism. One of the most powerful ways to do so is to study twins (both identical and non-identical) where at least one of the pair has autism. This approach allows us to look at how often both twins receive a diagnosis of autism.  Study of identical twins, who share 100 percent of their genes, then helps us determine the degree to which autism is inherited, or genetic; and comparison to fraternal twins, who share around 50 percent of their DNA, allows us to understand how environmental influences add to the risk of autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

But until now we’ve had only three, small twin studies, which together looked at just 66 twin pairs–a number too small to produce reliable conclusions. Still, these studies were the best we had, and theysuggested that when one identical twin develops an ASD, the chance of the other twin developing the disorder is as high as 90 percent. These same studies showed little to no overlap among fraternal twins – leading to the conclusion that inherited genes alone produced the risk.

Now comes the game changer. The California Autism Twins Study (CATS) is the largest ever study of twins with ASD, with scientifically reliable information on 192 twin pairs, both identical and fraternal. It was conducted by a group of renowned researchers in collaboration with the AGRE team. AGRE clinical staff collected DNA and helped perform the home-based diagnostic and cognitive testing on many of the participants, using scientifically validated research measures for diagnosing ASD.

So what were its dramatic findings?

It found that when one identical twin develops autism, the chance of the other twin developing the disorder is 70 percent. More surprisingly, it documented a whopping 35 percent overlap among fraternal twins. This is strong evidence that environmental influences are at play. Moreover, the 35 percent “both twins affected” rate is higher than the 3 percent to 14 percent overlap between different age siblings. (i.e. If one child in a family has autism, there is a 3 percent to 14 percent chance that a younger sibling will develop it.) This suggests that there are environmental influences uniquely shared by twins–for instance, in the womb and perhaps during birth.

In other words, we now have strong evidence that, on top of genetic heritability, a shared prenatal environment may have a greater than previously realized role in the development of autism in twins

This has important implications for future research. For instance, is there a particular time period during the pregnancy when a child’s brain development is particularly vulnerable to environmental influences? And what might these influences be? Already we have evidence implicating such factors as advanced parental age, maternal nutrition, maternal infections (especially flu) during pregnancy, and premature and/or underweight birth. Indeed, multiple-birth pregnancies are themselves associated with increased risk of developmental disorders such as cerebral palsy and autism.

Only by further studying these issues can we begin to provide parents and parents-to-be with the reliable guidance they seek and need.  Autism Speaks is currently investing in several studies that are exploring how environmental factors increase the risk for ASD.  As we go forward in these endeavors, we greatly value your input. So please write and share your comments on our blog and website. For more on the study, read The Womb as Environment.

On July 5th, NBC Nightly News came to Andy Shih, Autism Speaks’ vice president of scientific affairs, for perspective on the game-changing California Autism Twins study. To view the clip please visit here.

More national television media coverage of the ground-breaking results of the California Autism Twin study–research made possible by the Autism Speaks Autism Genetic Resource Exchange (AGRE) and Autism Speaks’ supporters such as you.

The $72,000 Question

October 5, 2010 4 comments

How much are behavioral and medical treatments costing your family? These costs, and the fact that many therapies used to help individuals with ASD do not have strong scientific support of their effectiveness, are the subjects of a six-page feature article in the October issue of Scientific American.

In the article, author Nancy Shute reviews the myriad therapies that are frequently used by families in search of help for autism’s challenging symptoms. One therapy with consistent evidence-based support through randomized controlled clinical trials is early intensive behavioral therapy therapy. As the article noted, a study published in Pediatrics in November 2009 and led by Autism Speaks’ Chief Scientific Officer, Geraldine Dawson, Ph.D. underscores the benefit for intensive early behavioral intervention in improving the outcomes of young children on the spectrum. Unfortunately this type of intervention can cost families over $33,000 per year and that is not quite half the total costs incurred by families. A Harvard School of Public Health report places the average total medical and non-medical costs of autism at approximately $72,000 per year.

Autism Speaks was highlighted several times in the article.  First, the substantial contribution of private foundations to funding autism research was noted– $79 million in 2007.  Second, an analysis of Autism Speaks’ research investments showed that about 27% of our research funding went to investigating treatments.  The search for causes received 29% and basic biology received 24%, with the remaining 9% of funding going to research to improve diagnosis.

Finally, two clinical programs of Autism Speaks were featured.  The Autism Treatment Network (ATN) was highlighted for its one-of-a kind registry of children on the autism spectrum and the various medical conditions that accompany autism such as sleep disturbances and gastrointestinal disorders.  The ATN enables network clinicians to identify best practices in medical care for autism. These practices are released as published guidelines for used by practitioners everywhere.  The Autism Genetic Resource Exchange (AGRE) was also featured along with one of the founding scientists and ongoing advisors, Daniel Geschwind, M.D., Ph.D. As we learn more about the genetic risk for ASD, this registry of families with at least two affected children, becomes an increasingly important resource for scientists and clinicians.  AGRE families participate in multiple surveys, provide samples for genetic analysis and creation of cell lines that can be shared with other researchers seeking to understand the biology of autism and evaluate new treatment possibilities.

Now, back to the $72,000 question.  Autism Speaks is in a unique position with its focus on science and research in conjunction with a strong government relations team.  Easing the financial impact of autism requires insurance reform, which is underway in many states.  However, we need treatments that have withstood the rigors of scientific testing to put forth for insurance coverage.  The successful interplay between scientifically-validated treatments and insurance policy is a long and arduous road but one that Autism Speaks is uniquely poised to travel.

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