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New opportunities in autism research

By Ed Kang
October 2010

left to right, Issac Pessah, Ph.D.,  and Cindy Lawler, Ph.D.
Issac Pessah, Ph.D., veteran grantee from the University of California, Davis, is joined by Cindy Lawler, Ph.D., health scientist administrator in the Cellular, Organ and Systems Pathobiology Branch in the NIEHS Division of Extramural Research and Training. In leading the discussion, Lawler stressed the value of diverse backgrounds and viewpoints in light of a complex disease that is “not one autism, but many autisms.” (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Geraldine Dawson, Ph.D.
Geraldine Dawson, Ph.D., chief science officer for Autism Speaks, called autism a “public health crisis.” She said, “Autism was considered a rare condition, and now we see it is the most prevalent neurodevelopmental disorder today - a 600 percent increase in the last two decades.”  This year, more children will be diagnosed with autism than diabetes, childhood cancer and cystic fibrosis combined. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

left to right, Ray Tice, Ph.D., Tom Knudsen, Ph.D., and Lisa Boulanger, Ph.D.
Experts from various fields contribute to the autism discussion. Pictured left to right are Ray Tice, Ph.D., chief of the NTP Biomolecular Screening Branch; Tom Knudsen, Ph.D., a biologist at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's National Center for Computational Toxicology; and Lisa Boulanger, Ph.D., assistant professor of molecular biology at Princeton. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Researchers and advocates came together Sept. 8 to offer new strategies and opportunities for progress in autism research. The meeting, titled “Autism and the Environment: New Ideas for Advancing the Science,” was held at NIEHS' Keystone building and sought to bring the lessons learned from other fields to bear on the unique challenges of autism spectrum disorders (ASD).

Scientists and patient and parent advocates from within the field of autism had a rare opportunity to brainstorm with those experienced in other disorders with environmental risk factors, including Parkinson's disease and breast cancer. Ultimately, the recommendations  of the panel will inform future research initiatives and activities (see text box).

“The impetus for the meeting is the recognition that a more concerted and strategic effort is needed to accelerate progress in understanding environmental contributors to autism, so we can both prevent and intervene,” said Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., director of NIEHS and the National Toxicology Program. “Our goal is to identify novel opportunities and mechanisms to accelerate research guided by the recent advances in autism, emerging tools and technologies in environmental health sciences, and analogies to successful approaches used in other environmentally mediated diseases.” 

The session was co-sponsored by Autism Speaks ( Exit NIEHS, a non-profit group that raises awareness of ASD and sponsors autism-related research. 

As a starting point for future activities, a report of the meeting's discussion points will be shared with the NIH Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee and the public, through the NIEHS and Autism Speaks Web sites.

A complete list of meeting participants is available online.

(Ed Kang is a public affairs specialist in the Office of Communications and Public Liaison and a regular contributor to the Environmental Factor.)

far left to right, Igor Burstyn, Ph.D., Serena Dudek, Ph.D., Caroline Tanner, M.D., Ph.D., and Glenn Rall, Ph.D.
Panelists ponder epidemiological approaches in autism research while Igor Burstyn, Ph.D, far left, an associate professor of environmental and occupational health at the Drexel University, quipped, “Why do epidemiologists get all the hard questions?” Also pictured, left to right, are Serena Dudek , Ph.D., principal investigator in the NIEHS Laboratory of Neurobiology; Caroline Tanner, M.D., Ph.D., director of clinical research at the Parkinson's Institute; and, Glenn Rall, Ph.D., associate professor at the Fox Chase Cancer Center. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Looking ahead in autism research

Charged with identifying the best opportunities for accelerating research to better understand the role environment plays in autism, the group offered many possibilities:

  • Hypothesis-driven science in parallel with discovery science.
  • Interdisciplinary research that encourages interaction of epidemiologists and clinicians with basic scientists.
  • Prospective epidemiological approaches using personal sensors and other available/emerging tools to collect detailed information about environmental exposures.
  • Exploration of higher prevalence in suspected ‘clusters' or pockets and the examination of underlying exposures.
  • Study of gender differences - males being 4 times more likely than females to suffer from ASD - and gender-specific vulnerabilities to toxicants and other exposures, particularly prenatally.
  • Use of existing large data sets, including biological samples, to encompass genetic, environmental and phenotype information.
  • Increased use of bioinformatics and biostatistical analysis.
  • Incorporation of immunotoxicological approaches.
  • Development of refined animal models and induced pluripotent stem cells.
  • Understanding linkages between autism and medical conditions such as gastrointestinal and immune response disorders.

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