Public Release: 

UC Davis M.I.N.D. Institute launches new program to identify biomarkers for autism and other disorders

University of California - Davis Health System

(SACRAMENTO, Calif.)-- The UC Davis M.I.N.D. Institute is allocating $1 million to develop a new neurodevelopmental genomics laboratory for the study of biomarkers and other early warning signs of autism and neurodevelopmental disorders. (M.I.N.D. stands for the Medical Investigation of Neurodevelopmental Disorders.) Using the power of the human genome project, the lab aims to identify a genetic profile, or 'fingerprint', of those children who may be vulnerable to autism.

The new laboratory is being developed, in part, in response to last year's landmark research on biomarkers, which was funded by the M.I.N.D. Institute and conducted by the California Birth Defects Monitoring Foundation. This research showed that certain proteins in blood samples taken from babies just hours old could predict which children would later develop autism or mental retardation.

"It is the highest priority of the M.I.N.D. Institute's research program to continue this important research on biomarkers," said David G. Amaral, research director of the M.I.N.D. Institute. "Our goal is to develop a diagnostic test within five years to accurately identify those newborns who are likely to develop autism. Identification of susceptible children is the first step to prevention of full-blown autism, and if we can prevent even 10 percent of the new cases of autism, that will be a major accomplishment."

Autism is a debilitating neurodevelopmental disorder that appears to be on the rise in California and throughout the country. In 1999 alone, more than 2,000 children with severe autism were added to the roles of the Department of Developmental Services (DDS). In addition to the devastating effect this disorder has on families with an autistic child, the DDS estimates that the lifetime cost of care for each of these children is over $2 million.

While the cause of autism is unknown, substantial evidence points to a genetic component. Additional research is needed to determine whether a particular genetic defect alone has the power to predispose a child to autism or whether it results in the disorder only when combined with other events. These events may range from exposure to environmental toxins, to inappropriate responses to childhood vaccinations or to food allergies.

"If we are able to predict which children are threatened by specific life events, we can take special precautions to limit their exposures," said Amaral. "We could also begin therapeutic interventions long before any serious symptoms are observed. In this way we would hope to diminish or eliminate the possibilities of certain children developing autism."

The laboratory will be housed initially at the UC Davis Cancer Center, which will also conduct cancer research at the facility, until the M.I.N.D. Institute opens its new research laboratories in 2002. Jeffrey Gregg, an assistant professor of pathology, will operate the new lab. Paul Hagerman, a physician and molecular biologist recently recruited to the M.I.N.D. Institute and the Department of Biological Chemistry from the University of Colorado, spearheaded the laboratory's development and will take the lead in developing a comprehensive biomarkers research program. Improving on existing technology to develop effective treatments for neurodevelopmental disorders is a major focus of the lab.

"We initially will be looking to develop faster and more accurate blood tests to identify which infants may be at risk for developing autism," said Hagerman. "The technology used for the California Birth Defects Monitoring Foundation study, while accurate, is both labor intensive and limited in scope. The new genomics facility will allow us to dramatically broaden our search. Our goal is to gain important information about biomarkers so that we can ultimately develop effective treatments for autism and other neurodevelopmental disorders."

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