Four years ago, the Autism Speaks Autism Treatment Network (ATN) set out to collect information on the medical concerns of children and adolescents with autism across North America—while delivering the best in evidence-based, comprehensive healthcare and support for these patients and their families.
Through the efforts of hundreds of clinicians across what are now 17 sites, the ATN Registry has now surpassed 4,000 enrolled children. The information gathered from these participating families is providing the global healthcare community with priceless information on the medical conditions often associated with autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) and the best ways to manage them. In particular, such large numbers allow researchers and physicians to better understand and address the great diversity of medical, behavioral, and other quality of life issues associated with autism.
Enrolling our 4,000th family is an important milestone for Autism Speaks, as we continue to expand and support the ATN and its mission of providing the highest quality of comprehensive care by teams of medical professionals who understand ASDs and excel at conducting evidence-based research.
In 2008 and again this year, the ATN earned additional federal funding to operate as the Autism Intervention Research Network on Physical Health (AIR-P)—funding made possible thanks to the passage and recent renewal of the Combating Autism Act. Under the grant, awarded to the Massachusetts General Hospital for Children, the ATN/AIR-P Network continues to develop and conduct research aimed at directly improving the health and well being of children and adolescents with ASDs and other developmental disabilities. Funding is supporting research in areas of highest priority to families and that can have the greatest benefit for children.
As we celebrate the benchmark of the 4,000th enrolled child, we want to again express our deep gratitude for both the commitment of our participant families and the thousands of donors, volunteers, and staff members whose support make this work possible. Thank you for helping us improve the care and respect afforded to all individuals on the autism spectrum.
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 firstname.lastname@example.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.
* 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.
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 10th Annual The International Meeting for Autism Research (IMFAR) will host nearly 2000 researchers, delegates, autism specialists, and students in the world’s largest gathering of researchers and clinicians devoted to a better understanding of autism.
At the official press conference, scientists discussed key studies to be presented during IMFAR. David Amaral, Ph.D., the President of the International Society for Autism Research, led with opening remarks. Speakers included Eric Courchesne, Ph.D., Antonio Hardan, M.D., David Mandell, Sc.D. and Irva Hertz-Picciotto, Ph.D. Dana Marnane, Vice President of Awareness and Events at Autism Speaks, moderated the conference.
This video was shot by Alex Plank and the Wrong Planet crew.
• Geraldine Dawson, Ph.D. became Autism Speaks’ first chief science officer in January of 2008. In this role, Dr. Dawson serves as the scientific leader of Autism Speaks, working with the scientific community, stakeholders, and science staff, to shape, expand, and communicate the foundation’s scientific vision and strategy. Dr. Dawson presented the Autism Speaks strategic plan on the second day of IMFAR. She also took the time to be interviewed by Wrong Planet’s Alex Plank.
• Autism Speaks Science Board member John Elder Robison, author of Look Me in the Eye: My Life with Asperger’s and Be Different: Adventured of a Free-Range Aspergian, is reporting from IMFAR. You read can his blogs here, here, and here.
• 2011 saw a new approach for Autism Speaks’ Innovative Technology for Autism (ITA) initiative with the running of a student design competition called Autism Connects. The design brief was pretty straight forward: to create technology design ideas for individuals with autism to better connect with the world around them, and to allow individuals who do not have autism to better understand and connect with those who do. You can find out more about this program here.
• David Mandell, Sc.D. conducted a study, ‘The Effect of Childhood Autism on Parental Employment,’ which was covered by ABC Los Angeles, in the clip below.
• New research is coming out of the International Meeting for Autism Research, includes ‘Adults with autism face health problems with age.’ For the full article, visit here. The clip below is from ABC Los Angeles.
• The Fly: into Autism crew was in attendance and performed some of their hit songs. FLY reflects and honors the diversity of its inspiring voices with an eclectic blend of rap, punk rock, ballads, soul, even Broadway. It boldly opens ears, eyes and hearts to the miracles of autism.
Video Credit: John Robison
• Alex Plank caught up with Clara Lajonchere, Ph.D, the Vice President of Clinical Programs for Autism Speaks.