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MU Researchers Join International Effort to Search for Autism Causes

$1.6 million grant to MU's Thompson Center to gather DNA data for autism research

Feb. 13, 2008

Story Contact:  Jennifer Faddis, (573) 882-6217, Lead Sr. Information Specialist

COLUMBIA, Mo. - The University of Missouri's Thompson Center for Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders is now part of a groundbreaking international effort to search for the causes of autism. A $1.6 million grant from The Simons Foundation makes the Thompson Center one of 13 university-based centers to be part of the Simons Simplex Collection project - the largest effort at gathering DNA samples from patients with autism and their families.

According to The Simons Foundation - a New York based philanthropic organization - the Simons Simplex Collection is a bold, new initiative to search for the causes of autism by collecting DNA samples at 13 sites from families with just one child with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). This initiative is different from past projects because it is focuses on families with just one child with autism, called simplex families.

Recent scientific findings suggest that there may be many forms of autism. There are core deficits that define Autism Spectrum Disorders, yet there is a great deal of variation in the behaviors and level of functioning among children and adults with some form of ASD.

"Autism is a collection of often quite distinct disorders that people have lumped together in the past," said Judith Miles, William S. Thompson Chair in Autism and principal investigator for the project at the Thompson Center site. "In the 1970s, every child with leukemia was treated the same way and very few survived. However, when we discovered childhood leukemia was a number of different disorders requiring different treatment strategies, the cure rate improved to 90 percent. This is what we want to do with autism."

To pick out different autism subgroups, the Simons Simplex project has developed the most comprehensive database of uniform information which will be collected on more than 3,000 families from across North America. It will be stored at a central repository and distributed to qualified investigators throughout the world.

"Using state-of-the-art, gold-standard measures in a very rigorous assessment will help us accurately characterize these children and will assist quality research regarding the mechanisms and causes of autism," said Stephen Kanne, co-investigator for the project at the Thompson Center and assistant professor of health psychology in the MU School of Health Professions.  

The grant requires the Thompson Center to provide 100 DNA samples to the Simons Simplex Collection each year for three years. The Thompson Center is actively recruiting families who have one child with autism between the ages of five and 17 and at least one unaffected sibling. Both biological parents must be able to participate. All testing is free for the families and they will be compensated with a small stipend. Families who would like to participate in the study may contact the Thompson Center at (573) 882-6081.

The other sites involved in the project are: University of Michigan, Yale University, Columbia University; Emory University; Harvard University; McGill University in Montreal; the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA); University of Illinois-Chicago; Vanderbilt University, Baylor University and Washington University.

"We are thrilled to be part of the Simons consortium, which brings together the best autism research centers in North America," said Janet Farmer, co-director of the Thompson Center. "Each center was chosen because it brings a special area of expertise. This is the kind of cooperative research that is needed to comprehend autism."